U-M Study: Employees Who Exercise Cut Health Care Costs for Employers

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Employees who exercise at least 20 minutes a day dramatically lower their risk of diabetes and heart disease, and cut the cost of health care for their employers, says a new study from the University of Michigan.

The report followed more than 4,300 employees at a financial services company, where 30 percent of the staff had metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by risk factors including increased blood pressure and high-blood sugar levels.

Researchers found that the high-risk employees who didn’t exercise generated $3,885 in health care costs annually. In contrast, those who completed 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week cost $2,770 annually. Additionally, pharmacy costs dropped by 50 percent for those who exercised.

“It was a real surprise, the level of protection physical activity gave to people with metabolic syndrome,” says Alyssa Schultz, a researcher at the Health Management Research Center in the U-M School of Kinesiology. “We can’t control our family history, and some health indicators such as cholesterol can be difficult to manage, but if individuals get enough exercise, the negative impacts of metabolic syndrome could be mitigated.”

More than 30 percent of Americans have metabolic syndrome, Schultz says. She adds that employers can make it easier for workers to exercise on the job by implementing low-cost interventions and programs.

Examples include standing desks, walking groups, signs prompting employees to take the stairs instead of the elevator, replacing a regular desk chair for a workout ball, or creating mapped-out walking routes that can be finished during a lunch period.  

“(Simple changes) can give a huge return for all employees, and for employers,” Schultz says.

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