Commentary: Exercise pays dividends

International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub AssociatioApril 4, 2012 

Everyone knows that regular exercise returns great physical dividends. It reduces our risk of developing many of the most common and costly chronic physical illnesses. And it improves overall health.

But study after study also show that regular exercise returns great mental health dividends — lowering chances of depression, decreasing anxiety levels, and improving overall mood. When you take these two great dividends into account, it becomes clear that policies that promote regular physical exercise can play a key role in helping our economy.

A Milken Institute study lists mental disorders as one of the seven most common chronic diseases that are driving up the cost of health care in America. Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for adults 15 to 44 years of age. And mental health issues are the leading reason for illness-related absences from work. In fact, one in four American adults will have some type of mental health issue at some point in their lives. Nearly one in five already has an anxiety disorder.

The benefits that exercise brings to mental health are just one more reason why we need to implement public policies and community strategies that facilitate physical activity. After all, when you consider all the ramifications of physical inactivity, and its connection to poor health, the discussion is no longer simply about mortality, morbidity, and quality of life. It’s about dollars and sense.

The physical and mental well-being of a population is a key driver of a healthy economy. When an individual is both physically and mentally well, he or she is more productive, more innovative, takes fewer sick days, contributes more to the gross domestic product, and collects fewer employer and government-paid disability and unemployment claims.

In short, investing today in America’s physical and mental health is investing in our country’s future prosperity.

In November, the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council of roughly a hundred leading chief executive officers and senior policymakers met to "deliberate on measures that can be taken by both business and government to encourage economic growth and prosperity," according to an article on the Journal's website. During the session, the task force on global health identified the need to tackle noncommunicable diseases as one of its top four recommendations, noting that these illnesses are emerging as leading threats to economic growth throughout the world. Mental health was specifically mentioned. And the group recommended the focus be placed on "best buys" for prevention — including physical activity.

If we are to effectively fortify the U.S. economy and create conditions for long-term prosperity, we must address the issue of physical inactivity. We must raise public awareness of the positive role that exercise and other components of primary prevention have on physical and mental health. And we must create a national culture with public policies that encourage regular physical activity and make it attainable for all.

Our country’s first-ever National Physical Activity Plan — a private-public collaboration among hundreds of organizations— provides an excellent framework for what needs to be done. The Plan identifies specific actions that should be taken — all targeted toward enabling every American to be sufficiently physically active for improving health, preventing disease, and disability, and enhancing quality of life. While public policies and legislation that remove barriers to exercise and other forms of primary prevention are essential, the plan outlines how all sectors of society can help.

Exercise really does pay dividends for both physical and mental health. And in a time of fiscal austerity, when the strain of prolonged economic hardship weighs heavily on the mental and physical health of so many Americans, the value, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness of physical activity should be recognized and leveraged.


Helen Durkin is the Executive Vice President of Public Policy for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) — a not-for-profit trade association representing health and fitness facilities, gyms, spas, sports clubs, and suppliers worldwide. She can be reached by email at

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