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The Margin: Start exercising at this age to save up to $1,874 a year on health care costs in retirement: report


Break a sweat in early adulthood to keep medical expenses from breaking the bank later in life. 

That’s the key takeaway in an analysis of long-term physical activity and Medicare costs recently published in the BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine journal. 

While plenty of studies have linked exercise with better health and a lower risk of chronic conditions, including various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (which can certainly drive up health care costs), most of these studies were limited to looking at physical activity at a single point in time — such as middle age (between the ages of 40 and 60.) Yet exercise habits can ramp up or slow down at various points in a person’s life — so is there an ideal window to get into a workout routine to whittle down future health care costs? Researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided to find out. 

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They drew on records from almost 22,000 volunteers in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which included a questionnaire about how many hours a week each person spent being active at various times throughout their lives. The researchers grouped them by their exercise habits, such as those who maintained moderate or high physical activity levels consistently throughout their adult lives, those who started working out in middle age, or those who exercised a lot when they were younger but began tapering off as they aged. The researchers then compared each exercise trajectory to at least a year’s worth of Medicare claims, to see whether there was a correlation between physical activity and health care costs. 

And indeed, they found that people who began exercising in early adulthood (19 to 29 years old) saved $1,874 a year on health care costs after retirement, compared with adults who were consistently inactive from adolescence (15 to 18 years old) into middle age (43 to 64 years old.) 

But that’s not to say it’s too late to start if you’re already in your 40s, 50s or 60s. In fact, this analysis also found that people who started exercising in middle age still saved $824 a year later on compared with those who never got started exercising. Still, the earlier you get in the habit of regular sweat sessions, the more money you can save on health care costs in the long run. 

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Keep in mind that the findings show a correlation between lifelong exercise and low health care costs, but they do not prove causation. Other factors could also be at play here, such as the fact that people who exercise may also practice healthy habits like eating a balanced diet and getting regular health checkups, which could impact their long-term medical expenses. 

What’s more, most of the participants in this analysis were white, well-educated married men; the study authors note that future research should include more diverse subjects. And the participants also self-reported how much they exercised, which could be inaccurate. 

But the findings still make a strong case for getting a head start in keeping active to keep medical expenses in check. And this is supported by other research that has reached similar conclusions, such as one study that found middle-aged Australian women who were physically active over 12 years saw up to 40% lower health costs

What’s more, a 2015 study found that Americans falling short of the current physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week) run up approximately $117 billion in annual health care spending in the U.S. Those 150 minutes a week break down into less than 22 minutes a day, or 30 minutes over five days. And hitting that mark might not just cut your health care costs in retirement; in the short-term, this could also lower your risk of getting severe COVID or dying. 

Read more: Exercising about 22 minutes a day could cut your risk of getting severe COVID or dying, study finds

Of course, getting two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week (like brisk walking or fast dancing) can sound daunting if you haven’t been in the habit of doing this already. And it’s been made especially difficult to get moving due to many workspaces encouraging sedentary behavior — like sitting hunched over a desk — even before the pandemic forced many people to work from home. In the “before times,” the average office worker spent up to 15 hours a day sitting down, and physically active jobs now make up less than 20% of the U.S. workforce

The key is to take it one step at a time. Literally. 

Health experts say that getting any amount of physical activity is better than none, so start small by taking a brisk, 10-minute walk five times a week, perhaps on your lunch break or after dinner, which will add up to 50 minutes of weekly activity. Once that becomes a regular habit, you can work your way up by extending the length of those walks each day until you’re hitting 150 minutes a week. 

Or you can park your car farther away when you’re running errands, or get off the bus or subway a stop earlier than you normally would to squeeze in some extra steps. We’ve got more tips on sneaking in exercise and finding ways to eat healthier and manage your weight here.

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