Economics and Physical Activity

A Research Agenda

Published in: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, v. 28, no. 2, Suppl. 2, Feb. 2005, p. 141-149

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2004

by Roland Sturm

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Both economic and public health/medical perspectives play an important role in the policy process, but often approach policy questions in an incompatible way. Economics and public health perspectives can complement each other, although harnessing any synergy requires an understanding of the other perspective. This article contrasts the two perspectives and reviews existing economic research in physical activity. Much effort has gone into producing cost-of-illness numbers or cost-offset claims with limited value from an economic perspective, although some simple steps could make them more informative. A more notable advance for active living research would be the adoption of standardized cost-effectiveness analysis methods, even just as an add-on to ongoing intervention trials. Probably the most challenging and exciting area, however, is the emerging research on the interaction between environmental incentives and physical activity. An economic perspective with its explicit focus on market failures is an important complement to ongoing active living research as policymakers in the United States are more likely to rely on the market to solve policy problems than on regulation. It is imperative to understand how the market works in actuality, not in the abstract, an area wide open for empirical research.

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