BLOOMFIELD, CT -- One-third of people surveyed by CIGNA, a global health service company, say that the economy has changed the way they take care of themselves. Of those people, 55 percent report taking better care of their health by exercising, eating healthier or getting regular check-ups and screenings, while 41 percent say they are taking worse care of themselves.

Among those who are taking worse care of themselves, 35 percent say they are not going to the doctor regularly or at all, while 17 percent say they are taking their medications less often or not at all. Ten percent say they cannot afford to eat properly or are eating less healthy foods.

“With a faltering economy that’s causing most Americans to pay closer attention to their wallets, it’s more important than ever for people to understand the value their health plan offers and make the most of the benefits that may be available to them,” says Charles Smith, M.D., chief medical officer for CIGNA’s health solutions organization. “For example, in many plans, preventive care is free or very low cost, and as a physician I would recommend that people use these benefits.

“Health plans offer many services that can help people maintain and improve their health and save on health care expenses, such as a 24-hour nurse line, price comparisons for health care services, home delivery of medications, or an employee assistance program that people can call to discuss stress they may be feeling about the economy or other matters,” says Dr. Smith. “Now – during open enrollment – is when many people are deciding which health plan they will pick for 2009. It’s important for people to compare health plan options and select a plan that’s right for them.”

According to the CIGNA survey, Americans want help. Two-thirds or more say that certain health services provided by a health plan would be helpful, such as: a Web site showing pharmacy price comparisons (78 percent); discounts for weight-loss programs and fitness centers (75 percent); the ability to talk to a nurse 24 hours a day (74 percent); and access to an employee assistance program (67 percent). However, the survey revealed significant gaps – from around 30 to more than 60 percentage points – between the health services people say would be useful and people’s awareness of whether or not their health plan offers these services.

Ninety-two percent of the people surveyed say they agree that eating a healthy diet is crucial to safeguarding one’s health, while 91 percent say that exercising regularly is crucial. When asked how today’s economy might affect certain activities over the next 12 months, 75 percent said they would be more likely to eat at home rather than dine out; about two-thirds said they would be more likely to take better care of their health, eat healthier, and exercise; and 47 percent said they would be more likely to get regular checkups or screenings over the next 12 months.

The survey underscores that people already make the link between health and economic well-being, with most agreeing that healthy behaviors, such as exercise and eating right, can lead to a better and more prosperous life. Ninety-three percent say such behaviors would help them enjoy life more and improve their energy, while 91 percent say these behaviors would help them live longer, and 85 percent say healthy living would help them take better care of their families.

Seventy-eight percent say exercise and healthy eating would help them save money in the long run, while 54 percent say these behaviors would help them earn more money in the long run. Seventy-seven percent say that exercising and eating right would make them more productive at work.

“These are very significant findings,” says Dr. Smith. “The fact that most Americans equate healthy behaviors with a satisfying, prosperous and productive life reveals a huge opportunity for physicians, health educators and health coaches to help people put these beliefs into action.”

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans say that their health is a priority, while another 30 percent say they have good intentions and think they should be doing more to safeguard their health or need some help.

So what’s getting in the way? Perceptions about time and money. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) said they believe healthy foods cost more than unhealthy foods, and 49 percent said that being healthy is expensive. Forty-four percent said that healthy meals take more time to prepare, while 36 percent said they are more difficult to prepare than less healthy alternatives.