Tubby Workers Can Cut Health Costs With Exercise

May 14, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Companies can save as much as $7 million in health-care costs simply by getting their tubby couch potatoesque workers to exercise a few times a week, researchers reported.

A University of Michigan study said that obese employees have higher health-care costs, but that those expenses could be cut by getting the obese employees to hit the gym every so often – without even losing any weight.

Researcher Feifei Wang and university colleagues, who tracked 23,500 General Motors employees, estimated that getting the most sedentary obese workers to exercise would have saved about $790,000 a year – about 1.5 % of health-care costs for the whole group. Companywide, the potential savings could reach $7.1 million per year, they reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Of the whole group of workers studied, about 30% were of normal weight, 45% were overweight, and 25% were obese. Annual health-care costs averaged $2,200 for normal weight, $2,400 for the overweight, and $2,700 for obese employees.

But among workers who did no exercise, health-care costs went up by at least $100 a year, and were $3,000 a year for obese employees who were sedentary.

Adding two or more days of light exercise – at least 20 minutes of exercise or work hard enough to increase heart rate and breathing – lowered costs by on average $500 per employee a year, the researchers found.

“This indicates that physical activity behavior could offset at least some of the adverse effects of excess body fat, and in consequence, help moderate the escalating health-care costs,” Wang and colleagues wrote.