New results from a fitness incentive program study could help health clubs lobby for tax breaks in Washington.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, Boston, recently brought members to Capitol Hill to drum up interest in H.R. 245, a bill that would let taxpayers use flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts to pay for exercise equipment and fitness programs, and H.R. 1748, a bill that would let workers exclude up to $900 per year in fitness center fees from taxable income.

The House Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over both bills.

Meanwhile, Medica Insurance Company, Minnetonka, Minn., a nonprofit health insurer, has teamed with Life Time Fitness Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., to conduct a study that suggests that taking concrete steps to encourage health plan members to exercise may lead to measurable reductions in the members’ health claims.

The researchers found that monthly claims costs for plan members who made active efforts to qualify for the incentive payments were 33% lower after 2 years than monthly costs for comparable plan members who received no fitness incentives, Medica researchers report.

The Medica study results are confirming what many Americans already believe.

When IHRSA commissioned a telephone survey of 1,016 U.S. adults ages 18 and over commissioned, it found that 99% of the participants said they think exercise helps preserve good health, IHRSA officials say.

But Americans “are losing the struggle to balance the demands of work and family with personal health,” says IHRSA President Joe Moore says.

About 79% of the IHRSA survey participants said work, family and finances interfere with people’s efforts to exercise, and 61% said the government should do more to promote physical activity.

The Medica study results imply that fitness programs could help hold down skyrocketing medical costs if they persuade a large percentage of Americans to exercise at least twice a week.

In 2003, Medica began offering incentive payments of $20 per month to members of fully insured plans who exercised at Life Time health clubs at least 8 times a month.

About 26,689 of the 144,736 of the Medica members who were enrolled in Medica plans from January 2003 to December 2005 signed up for the fitness incentive program, and an average of about 5,000 qualified to collect the incentive payments each month.

Medica researchers could not randomly force members to exercise, but they tried to account for differences in the demographics and health of incentive program participants by matching 3,249 fitness program participants with non-participants who were the same sex and in the same age range, had similar health resource use histories, suffered from similar chronic conditions, and fit in similar morbidity groups.

After 2 years, all fitness program participants were spending an average of $145 per month on physician claims, or 22% more than the average for the non-participants in the matched control group, and $87 per month on facility claims, or 18% less than the average for the non-participants, researchers report.

Because physician claims were higher, the fitness program participants ended up costing Medica $298 per month, or about $4 per month more than the non-participants cost Medica, the researchers report.

But the researchers found that the fitness program participants who actually exercised 8 or more times a month, rather than simply signing up for the incentive program, ended up with substantially lower health claims than members of the matched control group.

The 757 incentive program members who were exercising regularly at Life Time health clubs even before Medica started its incentive program filed an average of $259 in claims per month after 2 years, and the 238 incentive program members who started exercising at Life Time regularly only after they joined the Medica incentive program filed an average of just $220 in claims per month.

The 238 “new” exercisers who exercised at least 8 times per month spent 9.2% less than matched controls spent on prescription drugs, 13% less on physician claims and 64% less on facility claims, Medica researchers report.

The new regular exercisers were about 30% less likely to enter the hospital as inpatients, and they were only half as likely to go to the emergency room.

The Medica researchers emphasize that their analysis should be considered preliminary.

“The analysis is based on [a] limited number of members,” the researchers write. “It is possible that the trends may change as additional data becomes available.”

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GRAPHIC – soak up space with picture of someone exercising???

Kicker: 8 Visits

Exercise And Average Monthly Health Claims

Group

Baseline

Year 2

Established fitness program members,

exercised fewer than 8 times per month

$206

$304

Established fitness program members,

exercised more than 8 times per month

$179

$259

New fitness program members,

exercised fewer than 8 times per month

$252

$344

New fitness program members,

exercised more than 8 times per month

$241

$220

All fitness program members

$214

$298

Matched controls who did not

join fitness program

$215

$294

Source: Medica Insurance Company, Minnetonka, Minn.