Paul made an interesting comment on the PedalTheOcean facebook fan page today about footing the bill for the cost of a rescue if that were required. Martin quickly came to my defense by suggesting that if only a few people take cues and inspiration from me, and get themselves into shape, the money it will save our health care system will be far greater than the cost of a rescue. Although I am insuring my own rescue by paying for a safety yacht to follow me across the Pacific, I thought that I would do a little research into exactly what the health care costs are due to the obesity epidemic, how much cash we can save our respective governments by becoming more active, and how this health care cost compares to the cost of a mid-ocean rescue.
But first of all, why is it that we have become so inactive in the first place?
I think it all started with my grand parents who were settlers from Europe and took advantage of cheap farm land here in western Canada. Life on the farm was tough, filled with plenty of physical work and hardship. New technologies such as electricity and tractors and motors were quickly embraced in order to save work and be more efficient. This attitude – or should I call it a ‘culture’ – of “why walk when you can drive?, why do it manually when you can push a button?” was passed down to their children who eventually moved away from the farms and into the cities in the 50’s and 60’s. The promise of a push-button lifestyle with a jet-pack and hover craft in every driveway came at a cost, and I’m not talking about the price of research, development and production of the new technology, I’m talking about the unforeseen toll this new technology extracted from our health.
A recent study from the CDC and the Research Triangle Institute, estimates that costs attributable to obesity – which is partially the result of leading a sedentary, inactive lifestyle, could be as high as $147 billion for 2008 (US). According to the study, people who are obese cost the US federal program $1,429 a year more than normal-weight beneficiaries. The average life expectancy in Canada is 80.7 years and US is 78.2 years. Average life expectancy of an obese person is 3 years less than a non obese person.
So – If the average obese person lives to the age of 75.2 years (in the US), then at $1429 per year additional health care cost would equal a grand lifetime total of $107,460 per person. And this does not include the indirect cost of being unfit like sick days, loss of income, lower productivity, etc, etc. Most estimates suggest that the indirect costs are equal to the direct health care costs – so we might be looking at a lifetime figure closer to $200,000 per overweight person.
How much does a search and rescue cost?
It costs the Coast Guard approximately $400 per hour to operate a rescue boat to search, and from $1,500 to $3,000 per hour for aircraft and cutters to search. According to numbers calculated by Mad Mariner using data provided by the Coast Guard, the average search and rescue cost was $27,712.50 for 2009. That number is only an average, and does not convey the widely divergent nature of these operations. Some take only an hour or two and require one small rescue boat, while others may require days of searching using planes and helicopters. Coast Guard officials say they do not calculate or consider costs when rescue decisions are being made, noting that it’s their mission to carry out the work.
I am currently reading the book “Not Without Hope” about Nick Schuyler, Will Bleakley and their NFL player friends Corey Smith and Marquis Cooper. They went fishing 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa, Florida and flipped their boat over by gunning the boat to release a stuck anchor tied to the stern. After spending 40 hours on top of the upturned hull and enduring a storm, Nick was the only survivor. They did not have an EPIRB which made the search and rescue operation far more expensive, and probably cost the lives of Nick’s friends. According to the coastguard, the price tag for this search and rescue operation was approximately $1.6 million. On the other hand, a recent river rescue by helicopter cost $3500.
So here is the way I see it – if the cost of being inactive and unhealthy is about $200,000 per person in direct and indirect health care costs, and if the average cost of a search and rescue operation is $27,712, then if I can motivate just one single overweight person to change his or her life by becoming active – even at an age as late as 50 years old, I would be more than offsetting the cost of a search and rescue operation.
Life can be so great when you are active – not only you are sick less often, but you are more productive, you have more vitality and energy, you will have an improved self image, you will be better able to counter anxiety, stress and depression, you will enjoy a better sex life, you will be able to relax more and will sleep deeper. In my opinion, ANYONE who is venturing forth and doing something to inspire others to become active is more than offsetting any cost society might have to pay as a result of such activity.