It finds that people who start to exercise before or during middle age typically save anywhere from $824 to $1,874 annually on health care costs after retirement, and the earlier they start their workouts, the greater those savings can be.

The study involved mostly well-educated white men and women and has other limitations, but the findings highlight how significantly exercise might benefit people’s bank accounts, as well as their bodies. Published in February in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, researchers at the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions decided to look for links between people’s activities at various ages and their health care costs, years later.

You can review the study methods used here. To skip ahead to the conclusions:

  • Those men and women who reported exercising moderately throughout their adult lives, walking or otherwise being in motion for a few hours most weeks, saved an average of $1,350 annually — or about 16 percent — on health care expenses after reaching age 65 compared to sedentary people.
  • Interestingly, a different group, who said they had changed their routines, ramping up how often they exercised during their 20s, gained even greater monetary bang from their exercise, saving an average of $1,874 annually on health care after age 65. Even if some of these exercisers then let their increased routines slide during middle age, reducing how often they worked out in their 40s and 50s, they still spent about $860 less on health care later than people who almost never exercised.
  • Being active when we are young might have especially potent and lingering impacts on our health care costs as we age. But even waiting until middle age to become active proved beneficial in this study. People who increased how often they exercised after age 40 later spent, on average, $824 less annually on health care than their inactive peers. In other words, “it’s never too late to start” exercising.