Time to work up a sweat on health care crisis

Published 8:22 am Monday, March 15, 2010

What if exercise were a pill? Can you imagine how different things would be if we could simply pop a couple of workout tablets and receive all the benefits of actual physical exercise?

I can hear the incessant commercials now urging, “Ask your doctor if exercise is right for you.” And I bet, if exercise was a pill, there would be powerful interests spending and stirring millions to ensure it remains accessible and affordable for all Americans.

As we know, exercise is not a pill. However, exercise is medicine and there’s a wealth of research showing how it can prevent chronic diseases and extend healthy lives.

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Knowing that, why aren’t we including exercise as part of the solution to our health care crisis?

Physical inactivity has been called “the greatest public health problem of our time,” and it contributes to the estimated $147 billion annual cost of obesity in the United States. In southern California, Kaiser Permanente keeps track of its patients’ physical activity to see if they are meeting the new federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, believing there is no greater indicator of health and longevity than how many minutes a person exercises each week.

Yet as a nation, we still spend less than 1 percent of our total health care expenditures on prevention and wellness. This has to change!

In promoting exercise’s role in solving our healthcare problems, I don’t mean to diminish the serious medical conditions that afflict many Americans for whom exercise may not be a treatment option. Exercise isn’t a cure-all, but getting more exercise could help millions of people and, in doing so, could save us billions in health care costs.

Every day, I hear stories that bring to life how exercise can reduce health care costs — stories such as Pat Harvey’s of Albert Lea.

Patricia’s situation was like countless others. A wife and mother of four, she struggled to take care of herself while caring for her family. Patricia suffered a stroke and was put on cholesterol medication. She suffered from sleep apnea, smoked and was looking at being put on high blood pressure medication after reaching nearly 300 pounds; Patricia looked in the mirror and saw her life spiraling out of control.

She took action and joined her local gym. Patricia has lost 70 lbs since this began and with her improved physical condition came a common “side effect” of regular exercise — Patricia no longer needs drugs to treat her high cholesterol and has regulated her blood pressure on her own. She has quit smoking, no longer suffers from sleep apnea, not to mention the confidence in herself that now radiates from her.

There are thousands of remarkable stories like Patricia Harvey across this country and we need to do everything we can to create millions.

Not everyone can or will begin an exercise program. But countless Americans will if we make exercise options more affordable and accessible and if we continue to forge partnerships between the fitness industry and the health care community that encourage the use of exercise as medicine.

Neither idea is revolutionary; both have been proven to work.

In Minnesota, the state where Anytime Fitness, Inc. is based, we’ve seen how a small incentive, like paying individuals $20 for using a fitness facility eight or more times a month, promotes more regular exercise, lowers health care costs and improves overall health.

A study by nonprofit health care provider Medica found discounts on fitness center memberships motivated individuals to exercise more frequently and revealed that those who reached the threshold of just eight visits to the gym per month reduced their costs for prescriptions, doctor appointments, and care at clinics and hospitals by more than a third!

The findings of this study and others, such as one from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, prove that providing incentives for exercise and wellness initiatives is effective and leads to a healthier population. Our tax code, though, doesn’t make it easy for employers to fully foster a healthy workforce, and few states have embraced fitness club reimbursements programs the way we have in Minnesota.

In fact, at a time when we need to do everything we can to promote health and wellness, policy makers across the country are cutting programs, underfunding trails and facilities that make it easier for us to get off the couch and get outside, and erecting barriers to exercise such as increased regulations and taxes on health clubs.

Not everyone is taking this approach. I’m encouraged to hear leaders such as Sen. Tom Harkin call for prevention and wellness to be a centerpiece of health care reform. We need to urge all our elected officials to adopt this viewpoint and support programs that promote exercise and its role as medicine in any health care reform efforts.

It won’t be easy, but as with exercise, we’ll be rewarded for our hard work.

Sindy Dickey is the manager of Anytime Fitness in Albert Lea. Anytime Fitness is the largest co-ed fitness club chain in the world and a founding partner of Exercise is Medicine, an initiative developed by the American College of Sports Medicine to make physical activity and exercise a standard part of disease prevention and treatment.