Want to cut back on trips to the doctor and stay out of the hospital? You may want to start spending more time at the gym. A new study shows that physically fit men visit their doctors less often and are less likely to require an overnight hospital stay.

Researchers say the results offer new evidence of the health benefits of exercise and physical fitness. But if you’re not fit yet, there’s still hope.

The study also showed that men who improved their physical fitness level over a 19-year period also reaped the benefits of fewer overnight hospital stays.

“Fit men, as well as those who become fit, may reduce health care costs by more than 50 percent,” says researcher Tedd L. Mitchell, MD, of the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, in a news release. “Beyond the cost savings, we can see a reduced need for health care overall for fitter men.”

The results appear in the December issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Exercise Reduces Doctor, Hospital Visits

In the study, researchers looked at the relationship between physical fitness and the use of health care services in 6,680 healthy men.

Between 1970 and 1989 the men had two complete physical examinations and underwent an exercise treadmill test. The men were then divided into four groups based on their level of physical fitness.

The study showed that the men who were most physically fit were less likely to visit their doctor or require medical treatments in the previous year than the least fit men. In addition, men in the least physically fit group were more likely to require multiple medical treatments.

For example, only 1.5 percent of the men in the fittest group required 10 or more medical treatments in the last year compared with 3.5 percent of the least fit men.

Most of the men required no overnight hospital stays, but the least fit men were more likely to have spent the night in a hospital than the men who were most physically fit (5.2 vs. 3.2 percent, respectively).

The study also showed that the men who improved their physical fitness level between the two examinations were nearly half as likely to have had an overnight hospital stay as men who remained at a low level of physical fitness.

The American College of Sports Medicine and the CDC recommend that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week to reap the health benefits of physical fitness.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Mitchell, T. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, December 2004; vol 36: pp 2088-2092. News release, American College of Sports Medicine.