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June 10, 2004

Employers can save by helping employees get more active

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Employers can save on health care costs by encouraging very overweight and obese sedentary employees to become more physically active, according to a new study by the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center.

"Moderately and very active employees cost approximately $250 less in paid health care per year than sedentary employees across all weight groups. The difference was about $450 annually per person in the obese subpopulation," Feifei Wang, HMRC research associate, wrote in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The findings are based on a sample of 23,490 active employees of a large manufacturing corporation. Their average age was 47, and nearly 79 percent of group was male. Those employees with known chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and bronchitis were removed from the study.

Researchers looked at the company's employees who selected an indemnity or PPO medical insurance plan and were not in Medicare during the years 1996 to 1997. Participants completed one Health Risk Appraisal questionnaire during that time frame, to assess their health status. Wang's team looked at questions on the appraisal focusing on frequency of physical activity per week, at least 20 minutes each time, and on their body mass index, which is a measure of weight to height.

They grouped respondents in three physical activity levels: sedentary (exercising less than once a week); moderately active (exercising once or twice a week) and very active (three or more times per week). BMI was calculated from self-reported height and weight, and used to classify the participants as normal weight, overweight or obese.

Health care claims data used in the study included medical and pharmaceutical costs incurred during 1996 and 1997.

"The potential maximum health care savings were from the employees categorized as both sedentary and obese," Wang said. "Moving them into the moderately active category, even without weight loss, could saved an estimated $498 per person, which accounts for 1.5 percent of the total health care costs of the study population."

Although the relationship between physical activity and lower heath care costs was not as strong as among obese employees, the study found that physical activity behavior could offset at least some of the adverse effects of excess body fat and thus lower health care costs for that segment of the population, Wang said.

"Physical activity is highly associated with cardiorespiratory fitness, regardless of body weight. Bringing all employees into a 'normal' weight range has proven unrealistic," said Dee Edington, HMRC director. "But worksite wellness programs should promote moderate physical activity at least once or twice a week among sedentary obese employees, and help them maintain this more active lifestyle."

"This is a strategy to control health care costs, and, more importantly, to help employees maintain vitality and avoid pain and suffering associated with disease."

For more information, contact feifeiw@umich.edu or call (734) 763-2462.

Related links:

Health Management Research Center

Staff profiles at HMRC

Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

 

Contact: Colleen Newvine
Phone: (734) 647-4411
E-mail: cnewvine@umich.edu