There are numerous benefits to maintaining a healthy weight, but what if we thought about these benefits not just in terms of our lifestyle, but also in terms of our bank accounts? A new study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health approached the topic with this very question in mind.
Researchers looked at the costs associated with obesity (considering both direct medical costs as well as work productivity losses) and calculated how those expenses play out over a lifetime. Here’s an example: Say you’re 40 years old and have obesity (a BMI of 30.0 or higher). If you drop enough pounds to then qualify as overweight (a BMI of 25.0 to under 30) you stand to save an average of $18,262. If you get down to what is medically classified as a normal weight (a BMI ranging between 18.5 to under 25), you could save nearly twice as much: $31,447. While your savings values peak at the age of 50 (amounting to as much as $36,278), the study found that losing weight at any age, even beyond 80 years old can save you money.
How did the researchers come up with these incredibly specific numbers? Dr. Bruce Y. Lee executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins explains that the researchers developed a computational simulation model that simulated the weight and health status of a person (considering normal weight, overweight, and obese body types) at ages 20 through 80 years old. Because no two people are exactly like, the researchers ran through “thousand” of different scenarios, and threw in a multitude of variables such as the body’s tendency to want to maintain metabolic homeostasis, aka, keep the extra weight even if it’s toxic.
“The body wants to maintain homeostasis, to return to where it was before,” says Dr. Lee. “Like with any habit, the longer your body remains in a state the more it gets used to that certain state.”
Putting Dollar Signs On An Epidemic
The simulation model, which Dr. Lee notes is “complicated” (and after skimming the pages of data and algorithms it used, I must concur) looks at the high likelihood of developing medical conditions associated with being overweight or obesity including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer and how these diseases can impact our financial well-being.
“There are really two types of costs here: one is directly medical, so everything from doctor visits, medicines, hospitalizations and so on,” says Dr. Lee. “But on the other side of the coin are the productivity losses: lost salary from missing work because of clinic visits, hospitalization, decreased productivity, or just not feeling well. Then [tie in] the potential cut in life expectancy. What would all that look like in today's dollars?”
Looking at the cold, calculated costs related to the deadly health problems that obesity can cause or complicate may feel like just that: cold and calculated. But Dr. Lee and his colleagues wanted to make a point that would hit home with everyone at a time when a wake-up call seems to be urgently needed: More than 70 percent of Americans now classify as overweight or obese (as do nearly 20 percent of adolescents). Looking at the economic aspect of the increased health risks could help us take a more practical look at the health risks.
This study only considered the primary medical conditions associated with obesity — the real costs are probably higher.
“We deliberately tried to be conservative, excluding the costs associated with other conditions tied to obesity such as arthritis, musculoskeletal problems, sleep apnea, stress, depression and so on. So the actual costs are probably much more than this.”
Dr. Louis Aronne, who specializes in the treatment of obesity and weight management and chairs the American Board of Obesity Medicine, says that there are “more than 50 illnesses that are the direct result of an increase in body fat,” and that reducing one’s weight can make for dramatic improvements. This study, in his opinion, “makes good sense” as it provides yet more reasons to lose weight if needed.
“This is a health crisis, and one reason treatment hasn't been widely successful is that telling people to eat less just doesn't do it justice,” says Dr. Aronne. “[The study] shows that there is a cost to being overweight and that with weight loss there is a cost-saving benefit.”
But Will I Have To Spend More Money Now?
Another reason Dr. Lee wanted to focus on money, specifically, is because it’s often a concern people have when they’re making lifestyle changes to lose weight. Perhaps you’ll spend more at the supermarket if you’re cutting out processed foods, and adding more fresh produce. You may intensify your fitness regime by joining a gym or purchasing exercise equipment. These costs can add up, surely, but if you know what you’re likely saving in the long run, that can help put it all in perspective.
Mike Ferreri, a 55-year-old in Philadelphia who began his weight loss journey two years ago after being “morbidly obese for most of his adult life,” notes that when he first committed to change, there were some upticks in spending.
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“Our family food budget did increase as we started eating more lean protein then we ever had before,” says Ferreri. “Although we always had fruit in the house we have definitely added many more vegetables to our meals. I have packed my lunch for as long as I can remember, it was typically a sandwich. Now I grocery shop just for food for my office to eat during the week, buying [items like] Greek yogurt, salad mix, lean chicken breast (cooked), carrots, salad dressing and berries.”
Ferreri adds that throughout this process of getting down from a BMI of 38 to a BMI of 26.8, he’s had to “completely replace his wardrobe several times.” But he’s also seen some cost savings around medications and anticipates more savings to come.
“I was taking three prescription drugs to manage my hypertension and hyperlipidemia,” says Ferreri. “I now take no prescriptions drugs. I have not yet re-priced my life insurance policy at my new health levels but I hypothesize they should reduce somewhat.”
Summer Martin, a 39-year-old based in Kentucky has lost over 131 pounds (down to 142 pounds at 5’5”) has seen some fairly immediate cost savings; she eats out less, has eliminated prescription medications and doesn’t splurge on calorie-packed Frappuccinos or cases of soda as she did previously. She’s also started her own vegetable garden and now raises live chickens in her backyard instead of buying eggs. But, she adds rather joyously, any money she may be saving she finds herself spending because she’s able to do so much more.
“Any money I save gets spent paying for Zumba classes or other gym classes,” says Martin. “I love shopping so much more now that I tend to buy more clothes,” says Martin. “But I can tell that in the long run, 10 years from now, I will be in a much better place health wise than I would have been had I not lost the weight. It should save me some money overall by lessening my medical costs, as being unhealthy gets expensive: the more medications you have to take and tests you have to have run, etcetera.”
Lifestyle Changes Can Be Cost-Friendly
Dr. Amanda Powell, medical director of the Center for Medical Weight Loss at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center stresses that losing weight doesn’t have to be a financial burden, and encourages her patients to realize that they don’t have to make radical lifestyle choices to get on track.
Do the stairs in your building for 15 minutes twice a day and you’ve gotten your recommend 30 minutes of exercise a day in.
“Healthy eating is just about making smarter choices,” says Dr. Powell. “Instead of ordering an egg and cheese croissant, go with the egg and cheese muffin and save 300 calories. When you go out to a restaurant, ask to have the bread basket taken away, and have veggies instead of mashed potatoes. These aren't expensive things, they are just alternatives.”
Powell adds that you don’t even have to join a gym if you don’t want to shell out the extra money.
“Do the stairs in your building for 15 minutes twice a day and there: you’ve gotten your recommend 30 minutes of exercise a day in,” says Dr. Powell.
And like Martina and Ferreri, you may see some immediate savings in the medications department.
“One way we see people saving money acutely is just on medications,” says Powell. “If you go form 10 to six meds, that’s a lot of savings.”
Lisa Diewald, program manager at Villanova College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education (COPE) seconds Dr. Powell’s advocacy for making healthier, not costlier choices as it can be important to start out small and not venture too far out of your comfort zones. At least in the beginning.
One way we see people saving money acutely is just on medications. If you go form 10 to six meds, that’s a lot of savings.
“People often come to me when they've had a lifelong struggle with weight and they have this idea that they need to lose an exorbitant amount of weight,” says Diewald. “Our society says we have to make these huge changes and go for the gold and that can be pretty intimidating to someone struggling with weight. I reassure people that small changes can make a big difference in terms of how they feel, and losing just five percent of your body weight can be beneficial. ”
One quick tip Diewald recommends for those who make meat a daily dietary staple is to embrace more vegetarian meals. The savings can add up.
“If people move toward a more plant-based lifestyle where they are not so dependent on meat and animal protein, they can easily afford the so-called more expensive, healthy foods,” says Diewald. “Consider the savings of a pound of black beans versus a pound of beef: you've just cut the cost of shopping even if you do that just once a week.”
Now, if you have a medical need to lose weight, money may be the furthest thing from your mind. Martin, for example, was focusing only on getting healthy so that she would live to see her daughter grow up. But thinking about some financial benefits certainly doesn’t hurt.
“I hope in the end that [losing weight] ends up saving me a great deal of money,” says Martin. “But one thing is for sure: it has saved my life.”
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