Exercise, the Cheapest Medicine on the Planet

By Laura High @healthwriter61
March 02, 2015

The costs of remaining sedentary are simply too high.

It wouldn’t be too hard to drop a small fortune on a gym membership, a high-end pair of workout shoes, and some cool workout clothes. But compared with the cost of mounting health problems from a lifetime of inactivity, it’s a bargain.

Volumes of research have shown without question that regular physical activity has many benefits. Regular exercise can strengthen your immune system, reducing your risk for colds and flus. It can also reduce your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, and some forms of cancer. If you already have symptoms, exercise can actually improve those conditions. In fact, one study found that exercise may be as effective as drugs in preventing heart disease and diabetes, improving rehabilitation after a stroke, and treating heart failure.

In the exam room and on his blog, urologist Neil Baum promotes the idea that exercise can reduce and even eliminate the need for medications to treat many conditions related to being overweight, and adds to the list arthritis and erectile dysfunction. To get them started, Baum provides patients with a diet and exercise regimen and tells them to come back in a month.

“For those who buy into it, it’s been phenomenal. They get off their hypertensive medicines, they get off their diabetic medicines, and their arthritis improves because their joints aren’t taking such a load,” he said.

Sure, you might have to buy a few necessities to get started. You can find a good pair of athletic shoes for about $100. You might spend another $100 on some workout clothes (but you could definitely get away with spending less).

To join a gym you could spend anywhere from $10 to well over $100 a month on a membership. Or you could spend nothing. There are hundreds of apps, websites, and YouTube videos — many of them free — to guide you through a bodyweight workout, or set you up with a walking or running program. Anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or computer has access to virtually unlimited options for online coaching. Free music mixes designed for workouts can keep you moving and motivated. So there really aren’t any excuses.

Need more convincing?

Let’s look at the alternative. It’s well documented that the financial strain on our healthcare system from the consequences of inactivity are reaching staggering proportions. One study found that healthcare spending accounted for 17.9 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2012.

Obesity is one condition from which a whole host of related complications may arise. In 2010 more than 72 million U.S. adults were classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And data from the CDC show that people who are obese have annual medical costs $1,429 higher than costs for normal weight adults. In 2008 dollars, these costs totaled about $147 billion.

The problem is nationwide; two of every three Americans age 20 and over are either overweight or obese.

So how do the costs of having a chronic medical condition related to obesity stack up? For a quick overview, let’s look at some additional expenses you might have with type 2 diabetes, which has reached epidemic proportions and comes with a long list of potential complications.

  • A blood glucose meter and a supply of test strips. A listing shows meter prices ranging from about $10 to $150, with an average of about $40. Test strips range from 18 cents a strip to nearly $2 a strip, with an average of about 75 cents. A range of factors will dictate how often you test, but it’s not uncommon to test four times a day, which uses four strips.
  • You may need insulin or other medication to regulate your blood sugar. One study found that the average out-of-pocket cost for insulin was $36 per prescription, usually lasting three months. You may also need an insulin pump or syringes.
  • Nerve damage, especially to feet, is common with diabetes. Compression socks and some medications can help. But you may end up needing a rolling walker ($100 – $200) or possibly a scooter ($600 – $3,000). And it’s hard to put a price on the loss of mobility.
  • Diabetic complications can result in dental and vision problems, meaning more trips to the doctor, time away from work, and additional copays. Diabetes is a leading cause of lower-limb amputations, heart attack, stroke, blindness, and kidney failure.

The point is, if you have type 2 diabetes or any chronic condition requiring greater than normal care — numerous trips to the doctor, multiple medications, and possibly medical equipment — it comes at a cost. Of course, this cost will vary depending on insurance coverage, copays, medications, and complications.

But the cost isn’t just financial — there’s a cost to your quality of life. If you have a chronic condition that impairs your breathing, makes it difficult or painful to move, or requires taking equipment with you everywhere, it makes it less likely that you will participate in activities on your own or with family and friends.

So get out there and move! Even just frequent 10-minute sessions of activity throughout the day can improve your health. The costs of remaining sedentary are simply too high. Besides, wouldn’t you rather spend that $1,429 on a plane ticket to Paris?


February 18, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA