Fewer than one in four Americans get enough physical exercise, defined as at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, coupled with two bouts of muscle-strengthening. While this statistic may come across as societal scolding – easily ignored – it has huge ramifications for Americans' lives and the economy.
Why? It's simple: exercise may be the most potent and easily accessible tool humans have for improving their lives.
If the myriad benefits of exercise could be bottled into a drug, it would be rightfully hailed as a "miracle" treatment. Regular exercise prevents and even reverses type II diabetes, drastically reduces the chances of heart attack and stroke, lowers the odds of developing cancer and dementia, and boosts the immune system, shortening the duration of syndromes like the common cold, influenza, and COVID-19 as well as reducing their severity. There's more: exercise improves your sex life, prevents or ameliorates depression, helps you sleep, alleviates chronic pain, and makes you less susceptible to all sorts of injuries.
Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of Americans are unable or unwilling to take advantage of these real and tangible advantages. This has consequences. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 8.3% of yearly deaths in nondisabled adults 25 or older can be attributed to inadequate physical activity. MBA students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) translated these preventable deaths into terms of life expectancy. They estimated that Americans' lack of exercise cost men 6.2 years of life and women 5.6 years.
Regular physical activity gives you longer to live, and as an added bonus, puts more money in your pocket. In 2016, research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that regular exercisers spent between $500 and $2,500 less on medical bills each year. These savings add up. The UNC team found that if all Americans were diligent about exercise, there would be a nationwide annual cost reduction of $143 Billion just from controlling diabetes and lowering blood pressure.
Just last year, the data-minded RAND Corporation tried to tabulate the economic benefits of a universally active populace. The authors estimated that the United States would see its Gross Domestic Product boosted by $52 to $77 billion per year by 2025, increasing to $100 to $144 billion per year by 2050. That's at least an extra quarter percent of economic growth per year. These sizable gains would be realized through reduced mortality and improved productivity.
The RAND researchers suggested that government efforts to encourage exercise, perhaps in the form of community messaging, improving access to exercise facilities and parks, and promoting participation in physical activities, can pay dividends.
"Creating enduring change in physical activity is hard as there are significant barriers to change. However if this can be achieved, evidence shows that we can create healthier and more prosperous societies," they wrote.
There's no doubt about it: if everybody exercised, America with be a healthier, wealthier, and happier place.