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Want to Get Americans Active? Study Suggests Prioritizing Education Spending

It’s no secret that regular physical activity can affect overall health and well-being. Exercising regularly can lower the risk of a variety of ailments including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and even depression. Unfortunately, according to the CDC only 1 in 5 adults in the United States met the CDC-established physical activity guidelines. Since many of the leading causes of death in the United States are potentially preventable with regular physical activity, incentivizing activity is an important public health imperative.

Health spending in the United States currently represents 26% of all government spending, with this number expected to rise as our population ages in the coming decades. The fact that so few Americans are active enough to positively affect their health means that the amount spent on health by both the government and individuals is likely to rise in the future 

2016.10.05.Want_to_Get_Americans_Active.jpgEven though current statistics on activity can be discouraging for public health professionals, new research suggests that government spending, when properly targeted, can be associated with higher levels of physical activity. According to a study based on 27 European countries in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Public Health, it is actually education spending, rather than health spending, that is positively associated with higher activity levels.

While this may seem counterintuitive, the U.S. Government is well aware of the correlation between having a post-secondary education and higher activity levels. The study found that, based on the data from all of the countries in the European Union (except Croatia, for which data was unavailable), increasing education spending by just one percentage point of GDP can lead to a 20% increase in regular activity among the population. By contrast, there was essentially no correlation between a 1% increase in health spending and levels of regular activity.

The effect of education spending on physical activity was even more pronounced when calculating how likely people in a given population were to participate in a sporting event once a week or more. With a 1% increase (of GDP) in education spending , the study found a 45% greater likelihood of participating in a sport once a week. In contrast, a 1% increase in health spending led to only a 20% greater likelihood of sport participation at least once per week.

The researchers cite a number of different reasons why this might be the case, from education leading to increased awareness of the health benefits of physical activity to generally increased access to facilities and sports through educational institutions. That only 3 in 10 American high school students get an hour of physical activity a day can be explained, at least partially, by the continuous cutting of physical education programs by cash-strapped school districts.

Legislators should see education as an investment that will pay off in the form of a decreased burden on future government health expenditures. Failing to see the link between education and health risks a less healthy, less educated future that an aging America will struggle to afford.

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Topics: public health childhood development public policy