Getting Children More Physically Active Could Save Well Over $50 Billion

LONG BEACH, CA - AUGUST 20: Marcus Allen assists with a football station as part of the physical activities for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Long Beach at the Laureus MBUSA Western Region Event at MBUSA Western Region campus on August 20, 2015 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Laureus)

Increasing the physical activity of children is a good thing. But how good a thing is it? Well, we do know that the U.S. has been deep in a childhood obesity epidemic for over two decades. And this has been amidst concerns that children have become increasingly sedentary. So, what specifically can result by getting more children to maintain a healthy to an active amount of physical activity and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines? This is one of the questions that Tuesday’s 2016 Project Play Summit seeks to answer.

Convened by the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, May 17, at the Newseum at Washington, D.C., the 2016 Project Play Summit features a high-profile lineup of those passionate about sports and physical activity. Guests include First Lady Michelle Obama, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, Laureus Foundation USA CEO and Olympic gold medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, former NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning, civil rights pioneer and Hall of Fame tennis player Billie Jean King, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation CEO and President Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey.

A force behind the Summit and many other physical activity initiatives is Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and a veteran award-winning reporter for ESPN. (You may have seen his segments on Outside the LinesSportsCenterE:60, ABC’’s World News TonightGood Morning America and This Week with George Stephanopolous.) Farrey (along with his Aspen Institute team including Risa Isard) organized a full day of panels, talks, exhibits and discussions.

After opening remarks by Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, Farrey is scheduled to follow with his “State of Play,” a summary of where physical activity is and where it needs to go. For Farrey’s presentation, our team from the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at Johns Hopkins University and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC)/Carnegie Mellon University utilized computational simulation models that our team developed to determine the potential benefits of increasing the physical activity of children. Our team includes Atif AdamShawn T. BrownMarie FergusonDaniel Hertenstein and Eli Zenkov.

Using our Virtual Populations for Obesity Prevention (VPOP) simulation models, we simulated the physical activity behaviors of youths during the years of 2010 to 2020. This included scenarios where 50%, 75%, and 100% of the youths meet the recommendation of “healthy to an active level” (i.e. 25 minutes of physical activity three times a week) and 100% meeting the CDC recommendations for physically active (one hour of physical activity seven days of the week), compared to current physical activity trends reported by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 24: Girls in the Girls on the Run group participate in activities during the Laureus Model City Initiative Grantee Announcement with Girls on the Run at Audubon Park on November 24, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images for Laureus)

Here are some of our initial findings:

Compared to current physical activity trends, what savings would occur if… Fewer Overweight and Obese Youths Direct Medical Costs Saved Productivity Losses Saved Years of Life Saved
50% of Youth Maintained a Healthy to an Active Physical Activity Level 243,830 $20 Billion $32 Billion 4 Million
75% of Youth Maintained a Healthy to an Active Physical Activity Level 624,818 $22 Billion $38 Billion 13 Million
100% of Youth Maintained a Healthy to an Active Physical Activity Level 991,019 $26 Billion $43 Billion 20 Million
100% of Youth Maintained the CDC Recommendations for Physical Activity 3,093,196 $35 Billion $57 Billion 33 Million

Here’s an explanation of these measures:

  • Fewer Overweight and Obese Youths: The number of additional youths that drop below a BMI percentile of 85%.
  • Direct Medical Costs Saved: By reducing youths’ BMI, they will be less likely to develop obesity-related health conditions later in life (e.g., stroke, cancer, heart disease and diabetes). Avoiding such conditions will save medical costs such as hospitalizations, medications and doctors’ visits.
  • Productivity Losses Saved: Avoiding obesity-related conditions will make people more productive (e.g., fewer sick days and longer lives), which will provide savings for businesses and society.
  • Years of Life Saved: Avoiding obesity-related health conditions will also lengthen people’s lives.
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