If all children engaged in CDC-recommended levels of physical activity, the resulting decreases in obesity could save up to $51.5 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in lost productivity each year.
Using a simulation model, researchers at the Global Obesity Prevention Center estimated the expected health outcomes and cost savings that would result from increasing levels of physical activity among children.
According to the study, published in Health Affairs, childhood obesity is increasingly being recognized as a serious health problem. Stakeholders have implemented efforts to increase the proportion of children who are “active to a healthy level” (defined as 25 minutes of high-calorie-burning physical activity 3 times per week) from the current rate of 31.9%.
However, little research has been conducted to estimate the magnitude of the lifelong impact on population health and spending that could be achieved by increasing physical activity in children. The study authors created a computational model to simulate the health outcomes and related costs that would be incurred in childhood and adulthood for the US population aged 8 to 11 years in 2016.
The simulations were adjusted to reflect the hypothetical proportion of children participating in 2 different levels of physical activity: the “active to a healthy level” benchmark defined by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, or the CDC-recommended level of 60 minutes of moderate activity every day. The model translated this activity into BMI status and estimated the lifetime prevalence of obesity-related health outcomes (stroke, cancer, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes) and the associated costs in both medical care and lost productivity.
At current levels of activity, with 31.9% of children being active to a healthy level, the model predicted over 8 million youths will be overweight or obese by 2020, which would cost $1.1 trillion in direct medical costs and $1.7 trillion in lost productivity annually. It also projected that 63% of youths will eventually be diagnosed with at least 1 of the 4 obesity-related diseases in their lifetime.
If physical activity among children increased so that 50% of youths were active to a healthy level, the number of obese or overweight children would decrease by 340,443, and there would be savings of $8.1 billion in medical costs and $13.8 billion in lost productivity compared with current levels. These savings would be even larger if 50% of youths met the CDC’s more rigorous guidelines.
If 75% of children were active to a healthy level, the number of obese or overweight youths would decrease by 803,785, which would translate into reductions of $16.6 billion in medical costs and $23.6 billion in lost productivity. Cases of obesity-related disease could be averted significantly, including an estimated 376,480 fewer strokes and 190,400 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes compared to current levels of activity.
According to the researchers, these potential long-term savings substantially outweigh the initial costs of physical activity interventions. They also noted that their model likely underestimated the impact of physical activity, as it did not account for all known benefits of exercise, like improved self-esteem, or all possible obesity-related conditions, such as sleep apnea.
“Current efforts to increase physical activity may not match the magnitude of the possible savings, which suggests that increasing physical activity should be a higher national priority,” the study concluded.