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Exercise Can Save You a Grand in Healthcare Expenses

07/15/2015 05:32 EDT | Updated 07/15/2016 05:59 EDT
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With the start of the Pan Am Games, thousands of ultra-fit athletes have descended on Toronto, and dozens of different events will be broadcast across the country. It's a celebration of fitness and the remarkable things made possible by the human body. And it comes at exactly the right time.

North American society is less active than we were decades ago. That fact has caused an obesity epidemic, one that's set to strain healthcare systems like few other challenges we've faced. The precursor to the really serious health problems caused by obesity is something called metabolic syndrome. You're considered to have metabolic syndrome if you have three of the following: abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and low levels of the good cholesterol known as HDL.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of Canadians have metabolic syndrome, a little lower than America's 34 per cent. (At my clinic, we see it in about 20 per cent of our client population.) The syndrome comes with all sorts of risk factors. If you have it, you're two to three times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, for example.

Luckily, there's a great way to address the health risks of metabolic syndrome. The prescription is easy, cheap and effective, and it happens to be the thing that got the Pan-Am Games athletes to where they are: exercise.

Attesting to this fact is an academic study recently published by a longtime friend of mine, Dr. Wayne Burton, medical director for American Express and an academic from the University of Illinois.

Dr. Burton's study shows just how potent exercise can be to address the effects of metabolic syndrome. And if good health isn't motivation enough, then his study also indicates that it could make a big difference to your pocketbook, as well as the health care system overall.

The study concerned the employees of a U.S.-based Fortune 100 global financial services company. The study population of 4,345 employees filled out questionnaires about their health and exercise habits, as well as their on-the-job behaviour, such as the number of sick days they took a year. Of these, a little more than 30 per cent, or 1,314, turned out to have metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Burton then examined how exercise changed the health of the employees. He took those who engaged in 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, and compared them to those who didn't get that much activity.

In general, the results were pretty much what one might expect. The exercise group took fewer sick days. They didn't go on short-term disability as much. And they spent less money at the pharmacy.

But then Dr. Burton did something interesting. He tracked the amount that the employees used the health care system, and factored in the expense of doctor visits, prescription medication, that sort of thing. It turned out that exercising 150 minutes a week saved $677 per year in health-care costs for people who didn't have metabolic syndrome. The cost savings were even more dramatic for people who did have metabolic syndrome. If you had metabolic syndrome, and you exercised, then you saved the healthcare system more than a thousand dollars a year -- precisely, $1,085.

Dr. Burton intends the statistic to mean a lot to employers, who, in the United States, bear proportionally more of the costs from healthcare. He suggests that big employers roll out programs and incentives to encourage workers to increase their activity levels.

That's good advice in Canada as well. The implications are a little different here, though, because our provincial governments bear most health care costs. That is to say, we all bear the cost, because it's our tax dollars that support our provincial health insurers.

Does that make Dr. Burton's argument any less compelling for Canadians? I hope not. Currently, we tend to consider exercise as something that is good to do for ourselves because it helps us live longer, happier lives.

But Dr. Burton's study suggests that it's also something that is good to do for everyone else.

Exercise makes the world a better place. Does that sound idealistic? Maybe. But it's also true. That's because, by exercising, we consume fewer health resources -- $1,000 less per person, if the person has metabolic syndrome.

A thousand dollars per person is a lot of money, and if we all exercised, the potential cost savings to the public system would be enormous. So over the next few weeks, while super-fit people are all over Toronto, and coverage of the Pan Am Games blankets the country, perhaps we can take it all, and Dr. Burton's study, as inspiration -- to get outside, to become a little more active. Because in a country like Canada, where most of our healthcare is provided by government-run insurers, exercise is something we can do to benefit all of us.

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