Walking just 30 minutes a day can save the average American $2,500 in annual medical expenses, in addition to significantly reducing cardiovascular disease risk, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The study is based on national survey data gathered in 2012 by a panel of researchers from Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of California San Francisco, among others. The researchers juxtaposed exercise patterns and medical expenses in 26,000 American adults with and without cardiovascular disease—the nation’s most deadly health condition. For both groups, the researchers identified those who practice moderate-to-vigorous activity weekly, such as walking 30 minutes, five days a week.
Those with cardiovascular disease who met this standard, on average, saved $2,500 in annual medical expenses. Those without cardiovascular disease who exercised—and also exhibited no more than one major disease risk factor, such as smoking or high cholesterol—saved $500.
The report states: “Even among an established high-risk group such as those diagnosed with heart disease or stroke, those who engaged in regular exercise activities reported a much lower risk of being hospitalized, (having) an emergency room visit and use of prescription medications.”
Moderate exercise causes “light sweating or a slight or moderate increase in breathing or heart rate,” according to the report. This includes push-mowing, heavy cleaning, fast walking and raking. Vigorous exercise prompts “heavy sweating or large increases in breathing or heart rate” brought on by running, swimming, fast bicycling or aerobic activity.
To meet the report’s optimal guidelines for cardiovascular health, one needs at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week or 25 minutes of vigorous activity three days a week—or an equivalent combination of both. The nation would save billions annually in healthcare spending if only 20 percent of cardiovascular patients met optimal exercise guidelines, according to the research.
Routine exercise as a national imperative is an overarching theme throughout the report. In forecasting outpatient service trends, the researchers estimate cardiology-related visits will see the largest growth by 2025. More specifically, they expect to see a spike in vascular surgery demand. Additionally, the report warns that the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression and osteoporosis all increase when optimal exercise guidelines are not met.
Yet the researchers found less than 50 percent of non-cardiovascular patients engage in optimal exercise patterns. Among those with cardiovascular disease, the number is less than 35 percent.
When it comes to exercise, “something is better than nothing,” according to the American Heart Association’s exercise guidelines for adults. If 30 minutes of daily exercise is an unrealistic goal, the guidelines suggest starting with shorter workouts. Alternatively, the 30 minutes can be broken into several 10- to 15-minute sessions. The guidelines state: “Even if you’ve been sedentary for years, today is the day you can begin to make healthy changes in your life. […] Don't let all-or-nothing thinking rob you of doing what you can every day.”