Health Watch/Western U.P. Health Department/Ray Sharp/Community Planning and Preparedness Manager

A fundamental principal of public health is the maxim “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” These 10 words illustrate the role of public health in preventing disease.

Immunization is a great example of the “ounce of prevention” principle. Depending on the particular vaccine-preventable disease, for every dollar spent on immunization, seven to 15 dollars are saved in the cost of hospitalization and medical treatment, not to mention the economic impact of employee absenteeism and the incalculable pain and suffering from serious diseases like polio, pertussis and hepatitis.

Other cost-effective prevention strategies that improve health outcomes and save lives include modern sanitation, food and water safety, smoke-free workplaces, screening for certain cancers, breast feeding and improved child nutrition, worksite safety regulations, seat belts, air bags, child car seats and helmets for bicycling, skiing and other sports.

One of the simplest things we can do to prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes is engage in daily physical activity. Hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrate that 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, cycling and swimming reduces the risk of disease and improves quality of life at all ages.

According to Jordan D. Metzel, M.D., author of The Exercise Cure, regular exercise can improve memory and concentration, lessen sleep disorders, aid heart disease by lowering cholesterol and reducing blood pressure, deter some forms of colon and breast cancer, and even reduce a glycoprotein called Interleukin 6 that causes inflammation and may be a factor in many chronic diseases.

Most people are aware of the role of exercise in maintaining a healthy body weight and preventing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. It is not by coincidence that the three most common health-related New Year’s resolutions are to quit smoking, lose weight and exercise. The science of epidemiology, the field of study that quantifies the risk of disease, identifies tobacco use, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle as the leading root causes of disease and death in the United States.

In the quest to reduce chronic disease and the explosion in health care costs – currently $2.7 trillion in the United States, or 17 percent of national spending on all goods and services – exercise seems like a great place to start, the proverbial ounce of prevention. It’s not as if we don’t know what to do, it’s just that we need to figure out how to encourage people and support their good intentions. Communities that invest in building sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds and skate parks may reap long-term returns on investment in the form of healthier, happier and more productive residents; while in the short-term, many studies show that having an exercise partner, such as a neighbor, friend, co-worker or pet dog, helps people follow through on their goals.

As you set about making this the year you finally get hooked on exercise, I’ll leave you with two of the more surprising benefits of exercise that have been discovered in recent studies, both involving not the heart, lungs or muscles, but rather the function of the brain. Among school-aged children, those who walked briskly for 20 minutes before taking a standardized math test performed significantly better than those who sat quietly before taking the same test. And at the other end of the age spectrum, new research suggests that regular lifelong exercise is a strong protective factor for preventing Alzheimer’s Disease.

While exercise won’t prevent or cure all ills and cannot take the place of regular medical care, daily physical activity is a prescription for health that could go a long way in reducing overall health care spending and help us to live longer with greater quality of life.

Editor’s note: Ray Sharp is the manager of community planning and preparedness at Western U.P. Health Department.