Healthcare Costs and Exercising Children

An article in the New York Times describes a new study that used complex models to imagine what the health landscape of American children would look like if children exercised every day. The study found that the United States could save more than $120 billion a year in healthcare costs alone if all children exercised every day.

Researchers at the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University used computerized models that created avatars for each of the 31.7 million children in the United States currently between eight to 11-years-old. In keeping with real-life statistics, they programmed two thirds of these children to rarely exercise. The researchers then modeled each child’s calorie intake and “virtual body change” day by day, year by year, and tracked these simulated childhoods into adulthood. After these avatars reached adulthood, their health was modeled based on the predictive risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, etc.

The results were sobering. The models predicted that if eight to 11-year-olds were as inactive as predicted almost $3 trillion in medical expenses would be spent on this population. Furthermore, they would have lost productivity each year once they reach adulthood.

Even if this estimate is not perfectly precise, it is undeniable that the social price tag of physical inactivity is significant - inactive kids will grow to be sedentary adults whose health problems are not only expensive to treat but also cost the economy in lost wages and productivity. Childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes are only some of the many risks associated with a lack of exercise.

The same researchers also looked at the counterfactual and model of  how society would benefit if these children did exercise regularly. If half of the children in the U.S. were able to receive at least half an hour of exercise three times a week (the recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), childhood obesity would fall and the societal costs of obesity-related disease would drop by $32 billion. 

The numbers are undeniably compelling. The societal burden of disease stemming from lack of exercise would impact us all, regardless of how healthy we imagine ourselves to be. Today’s adolescents live with an unprecedented amount of distractions that might make physical activity seem less appealing, but getting proper exercise is not only a short-term benefit but also a long-term investment.

Wearable Tech and Meaningful Changes in Health

Recently, our blog posts have discussed the role of technology in children’s lives today - specifically, smartphones and Internet safety. At CHIL, we’re also working with students to incorporate technology into their physical activity via our pedometer program.


“Wearable technology” like Fitbits and Apple Watches have exploded in popularity in recent years. Their popularity especially among students has inspired several extensive studies into the effectiveness of such devices for goals like weight loss. These studies have been published in influential publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggesting their importance and relevance today. Many of these studies showed mixed results in the effect of having a Fitbit-like device on weight loss over time.


But it’s important to remember that while weight loss is potentially an easy, objective measure for researchers, it is not the only potential health benefit that comes from tracking day-to-day activity. It’s also not the only goal that students should have for themselves. Simply tracking physical activity can be a huge help for those who need to increase their daily activity levels - and that applies to many of us, and to students as well. Despite the federal recommendation that teens get at least one hour of exercise (moderate or rigorous) each day, 2012 data showed that only one in four teens get that hour, according to an article recently published by NPR.  The  Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that nearly half of American youths aged 12-21 years are not vigorously active on a regular basis.


Another article in NPR weighs some of the factors that could influence the effectiveness of wearable technology for fitness or activity. For example, while meeting daily fitness goals and step counts (the popular “10K a day”) could really motivate one person, failing to meet the same goal could discourage another from continuing to wear the device altogether. Also, meeting a daily goal could actually cause a person to “reward” him/herself with more calories. How, then, can we make these gadgets more effective? According to Dr. Mitesh Patel, who was interviewed in the NPR article, these devices are basically most effective when the people using them are “already dedicated to tracking their fitness.” Beyond the initial cost of an expensive device, there has to be a motivator that continues after the novelty of the gadget wears off.

What does this mean for students who are using less-pricey tools like those in our pedometer programs? These students can probably derive most of their long-term motivation not from the promise of weight loss but from the support they get from their school, friends, and family to be more active. The CDC agrees, pointing out that “well designed school-based interventions” and “social support from family and friends” are key in increasing physical activity for all teens. Our pedometer program seeks to do just that. For more information about our pedometer program, please click here.

The Flu Vaccine is Back!

It’s flu season again. Each fall, public health officials, doctors, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) urge Americans to get their flu shots in time for the winter. This week, we will discuss one of the best preventive measures we can take to fight against the flu.

Flu shots are the best way to safeguard children against the spread of the flu virus, according to a recent article on NPR. However, doctors interviewed in the article contend that the flu is underestimated even though it leads to more hospitalizations and deaths among children than any other diseases preventable by vaccinations. And yet, about a third of children in the U.S. are not getting vaccinated because parents either deem flu shots unnecessary or they believe that flu vaccines actually causes their child to become ill with the flu. However, these preconceived notions are untrue.

  1. There are greater implications to flu shots than parents realize. Children in school spend most of their time in classrooms with other children, and the likelihood that at least some of them are ill during the winter is quite high. Vaccines greatly reduce this risk. They are commonly used as examples in classes that teach about positive externalities - all members of society benefit from them in addition to the original individual that received the vaccine. Of course, relying on someone else to be vaccinated and flu-free to ensure one’s own health for an entire season is a risky bet to take.
  2. With regard to the second point, there are many respiratory viruses and colds that circulate in the fall around the time that flu vaccines may be administered, which leads parents to mistakenly assume a causal relationship between the vaccine and a child’s brief illness. However, according to a doctor interviewed in the NPR article, the timing of the flu shot and the “flu symptoms” are coincidental - a child is likely showing symptoms for a different infection altogether. Vaccines are made up of inactive parts of a virus that stimulate an immune response, but do not cause the flu virus to be reconstructed or activated inside the body to make us sick.

Historically, the flu has been a devastating disease, especially for children. We are lucky that modern medicine has reduced it to little more than an annual nuisance, but we must still take care to provide the youngest members of society with the means to fight off infections. The CDC publishes an up-to-date, informative page that explains the different types of flu vaccines available, as well as where to obtain them.  

For the transcript of Dr. Schaffner’s visit on NPR, click here.