Solving the Health Care Crisis: How Does Fitness Help?
Nearly two-thirds of American adults, and just over a third of children suffer from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States are chronic diseases, and people who suffer from chronic illness experience limits to function, health, activity and work, which impacts their quality of life, their families' quality of life, their employers and more. Treatment of chronic conditions accounts for more than $1.5 trillion spent annually on U.S. medical care. And here's the big eye-opener: many of the risk factors that contribute to the development and severity of many chronic diseases are entirely preventable—lack of physical activity, poor diet and tobacco and excessive alcohol use.
As the Obama administration and Congress look for ways to address the health care crisis, obviously one big step toward lowering costs would be to encourage Americans to take necessary steps to reduce their risk factors, thus lowering the incidence of chronic illness. One piece of this puzzle is encouraging people to be more active. Public health experts have repeatedly stressed that if Americans were more physically fit, health care costs would be lowered, government spending would be lowered, illnesses would decrease and worker productivity would improve. More than a third of all adults do not currently meet recommendations for aerobic activity based on the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The CDC estimates that the health care costs directly associated with our sedentary lifestyle were $76.6 billion in 2000, and roughly one-third of those costs are paid out directly by U.S. taxpayers, since about one in three Americans is already covered by a taxpayer-funded health plan.
"As we attempt to reform our health care system, we have to look at what we as individuals can do to help," said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) as he reintroduced legislation meant to remove financial barriers to physical activity across the country. "Increasing our physical activity and encouraging an active lifestyle for our families will help us prevent disease, improve our well-being and lower health care costs for everyone."
Exercise and recreational activity has the ability to make a big impact on chronic illnesses. Following the activity guidelines, which suggest at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, can lower the risk of contracting illnesses such as heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, as well as some cancers, including colon and breast cancer and possibly endometrial and lung cancer. And if a patient already has a chronic illness, regular physical activity, approved by a physician, can help them control the illness.
The CDC has taken action by throwing its weight (as well as funding) behind programs across the country, including YMCA of the USA's Pioneering Healthier Communities initiative, which develops models for community change. But in addition to encouraging grassroots action at the community level, Rep. Kind's recently introduced legislation—the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act and the Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act—aim to help encourage Americans to get more active by removing some of the financial barriers and offering tax breaks.
"Until America embraces prevention, no health care reform efforts can be meaningfully effective," said Joe Moore, president and CEO of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). "By enacting legislation that removes the financial barriers to exercise and healthy living, Congress can help mobilize America to embrace prevention. We need legislation that supports physical activity and other preventive lifestyle choices now, as Congress tackles health care reform. The PHIT and WHIP bills are just the kind of legislation we need to affect societal changes toward a healthier America and put the 'health' back in health care."
The Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act (H.R. 2105), reintroduced in the House of Representatives on April 27, creates a financial incentive for Americans to engage in physical activity and exercise. The PHIT Act would allow Americans to utilize up to $1,000 annually, or $2,000 for a joint filing, from pre-tax health spending accounts to make expenditures related to organized, individual and team sports; fitness and exercise; recreation and other physical activities. The PHIT Act would provide Americans with a tax incentive to invest in preventive health care before costly treatment is necessary, with the potential to save 20 to 30 percent annually on fitness-related costs.
The Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act (H.R. 2106), also reintroduced on April 27, promotes wellness in the workforce by balancing current law and allowing for off-site fitness center memberships as a tax-free benefit for employees. Current law allows employees to use on-site fitness facilities free of any tax implications, but when a business needs to outsource this health benefit, employees who receive off-site fitness center subsidies are required to pay income tax on the benefits, with their employers bearing the associated administrative costs of complying with IRS rules. The WHIP Act eliminates this tax on off-site fitness center subsidies, making it easier for all employers to offer important exercise incentives for their workers.
IHRSA members recently gathered in Washington, D.C., to meet with Congressional memb3ers and ask for their support of the two bills. "We are gathered in our nation's Capitol to urge our Congressional leaders to integrate exercise as preventive medicine into the health care reform legislation our country so desperately needs," Moore said on the occasion. "Passage of the WHIP and PHIT Acts will play a critical role in reversing our current system of 'sick care' into 'health care' and will empower Americans to take control of their health. The time is now for every fitness professional to share their story with their Congressional members and ask for their backing of this legislation."
IHRSA's Campaign for a Healthier America is a national grassroots project bringing together exercise enthusiasts to make healthy lifestyles a priority for all Americans. The Campaign seeks to bring the fitness industry together with government, employers, medical and public health professionals, insurance providers, schools, and each of us individually. You can get involved at www.campaign4health.org, and by writing to your representative and senator today to encourage their support for this legislation.