It pays to be active!

Sneakers, exercise, treadmill, running

Cancer patients are intensive users of health services and their higher than average expenditure on healthcare persists beyond the period of their direct cancer-related treatment.  However, a recent study of over 1000 breast, colorectal and prostate cancer patients suggests that being physically active after a diagnosis of cancer can significantly reduce those annual healthcare costs compared to those patients who do not meet the current physical activity recommendations.

The study used data from the nationally-representative Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) and combined it with National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data in order to analyze health service use and health conditions in conjunction with self-reported physical activity while accounting for socioeconomic and demographic factors.

The “active” group were those patients who met the current physical activity recommendation (150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week*). The “inactive” group were those patients who did not do sufficient activity to meet the recommendations or who were inactive.  

Only 30% of patients in the study met the current recommendations on physical activity. These active patients were found to incur 29% lower health care costs than the inactive patients ($9,108 vs $12,899), even after adjusting the analyses for demographic, socioeconomic, and health-related factors.

Of course, this is an observational study so we cannot rule out “reverse causation”, meaning that the people who were less able to be physically active were those who were unhealthier and required greater use of health services.  However, the analyses did attempt to take these factors into account.

The economic burden on the healthcare system reported by this study are substantial, considering that 70% of the patient population are potential candidates for increasing their levels of physical activity.  The recommendation for 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity is a realistic and achievable target for most people, including cancer survivors. A randomized trial of a modest physical activity intervention, with health service costs as the endpoint, may provide the level of evidence needed to encourage programs that would prioritize funding of preventive services.  The potential return on investment could help mitigate the ever-escalating costs of healthcare.

AICR recommends that people, including cancer survivors (if approved by their primary physician), should aim to be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day and limit sedentary habits.  By following this recommendation, people will exceed the 150 minutes of activity per week that was associated with lower health care casts in this study.  It pays to be active!

*Vigorous intensity activities are those that cause heavy sweating or large increases in breathing and heart rate; moderate intensity activities are those that cause slight sweating or small increases in breathing and heart rate.


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Source: Alice F.Yana et al. "Physical activity and annual medical outlay in U.S. colorectal, breast and prostate cancer survivors." Preventive Medicine Reports, Volume 9, March 2018, Pages 118-123

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    Published on April 18, 2018

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