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Covering exercise programs could work out to healthy savings

If health insurers paid for exercise programs, would they help patients prevent chronic illnesses and diseases, and thereby actually save money?

One healthcare researcher believes the answer is yes and he recently wrote an editorial in the Journal of American Medical Association outlining the reasons behind his thinking. "Cumulative work over the past few decades provides solid evidence for public policymakers to consider structured physical activity and exercise programs as worthy of insurance reimbursement," says Marco Pahor, MD, director of the University of Florida Institute on Aging. 

I think the health benefits of exercise are a widely-accepted fact, yet most Americans still don't incorporate some type of exercise into their daily lives. Perhaps if health insurance companies provided financial incentives, like covering yoga classes or discounting gym memberships, more patients would take steps (pun definitely intended) to exercise.

Insurers stand to benefit when patients stay in shape and help ward off expensive illnesses and diseases like diabetes. Pahor pointed to an analysis also published in JAMA that found that interventions promoting physical exercise in adults are cost-effective and can even improve survival rates and health-related quality of life. One study determined that older adults who visited a health club two or more times a week over two years incurred $1,252 less in healthcare costs than those who visited a health club less than once a week. Additional studies have shown, that among patients with type 2 diabetes, structured physical exercise helps control blood sugar. 

Based on these results, it seems the long-term cost savings of covering exercise programs, at least in some form, outweigh the initial expense for health plans.

Here's another plus for insurers: providing exercise opportunities doesn't have to be expensive. Researchers have found that group training or walking programs, for example, can be cost-effective forms of physical activity that don't require more expensive healthcare professionals or equipment. And a more expensive program, such as a gym membership, isn't necessarily better. "It is unlikely that simply offering a gym benefit will entice people who are sedentary to start exercising," Pahor said.

So maybe insurers should consider how they can use their plans to motivate patients to exercise more. Their reward just might come in the form of a healthier insured population and significant cost savings. - Dina

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