Does Living Healthier Translate Into Higher Pay at Work?

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Living a healthy lifestyle should be a goal in itself, but did you know that it's also an important factor in the amount of money you'll earn? It's true: Recent research shows that dropping bad health habits and getting fit is positively correlated to higher wages. In addition, changes coming next year, as part of President Obama's Health Care Reform law, could make failing to shed unhealthy behaviors more expensive for workers.

Here are a three ways that employees can improve their chances of staying hale and hearty - as well as giving their earnings potential a sizable boost.

Quitting smoking
A research paper published this past summer by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta crunched data from the Tobacco Use Supplement to the Current Population Survey for the time period of 1992 to 2011, and came up with some intriguing findings.

The researchers found that workers who smoke suffer a "smoker's penalty" in regard to the amount of money they earn, compared to non-smokers. The study's authors noted that smokers made approximately 20% less than non-smokers, a group that included former smokers. The group that earned the most were former smokers who hadn't imbibed for a minimum of one year; employees who had never smoked earned a bit less.

Because the number of cigarettes smoked per day had no effect on the wage gap, the researchers concluded that the earnings difference was more likely due to the fact that employees smoked at all, rather than the time spent away from work on cigarette breaks.

Beginning next year, workers who smoke may face economic penalties from their employers, as well. Though Obamacare legislation no longer allows discrimination against those with pre-existing medical conditions, the law permits continuation of a special insurance premium levy on smokers who buy insurance through the state exchanges.

The surcharge is limited to 50% above the rates charged for non-smokers, but could be pricey for workers seeking health insurance on their own, rather than through their employer. Smokers can avoid the extra fee by signing up for smoking cessation programs, however.

Maintain a normal body weight
Obesity is another health issue associated with lower wages. A 2010 study by the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Davis observed a solid link between lower pay and obesity, though researchers noted the complexity of the issue -- including the fact that lower-income workers often have less access to healthy food.

In 2011, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis drilled down further, observing that an obesity wage penalty exists for extra body weight due to fat tissue, rather than muscle mass - with the latter being associated with statistically higher wages. This past April, Gallup's list of the most and least obese metropolitan areas noted that the former cities were also home to workers with the lowest yearly wages.

Get more exercise
It is common knowledge that exercise supports a healthy body weight, but a study
using longitudinal data from 1998 and 2000 shows that exercise frequency alone can net workers more money in their paychecks.

Published last June, the work by economist Vasilios D. Kosteas noted that exercising three or more times per week translates into a 6% to 10% increase in employees' weekly pay. While you may assume that the active exercisers were simply more ambitious, Kosteas filtered out such variables, testing only the frequency of exercise. The study found the effect to be more pronounced for women than men: frequent female exercisers saw a rise of about 11% in their wages, compared to 7% for males.

Good health is more rewarding than ever
While these reputable studies show definitively that healthy lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on earnings potential, there is also a dark side to some of the results. The authors of the smoking study note that, since one cigarette a day is enough to trigger the smoking wage penalty, workplace bias is likely the cause, rather than low productivity associated with smoking.

For body weight, the St. Louis Fed study points out that the type of tissue involved -- fat versus muscle -- makes all the difference when it comes to an obesity wage penalty. The authors note that it could be simply that employers see excess fat as a future health expense issue, or relate obesity with low work productivity. To me, however, it seems like there may also be a workplace bias against obese individuals.

Clearly, there are other rewards to embracing a healthy lifestyle, in addition to a heftier paycheck. With the New Year fast approaching, the knowledge that becoming more fit can actually boost income may prompt more people to follow through with those annual health-enhancing resolutions.

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