- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

Obesity is depleting our nation’s pocketbook and devastating the health and wellness of millions of Americans. Left unaddressed, the obesity epidemic will undermine our country’s health, reduce our productivity and threaten our economic security.

Obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of medical spending in the United States, or an estimated $147 billion a year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month. Half of that cost is financed through Medicare and Medicaid.

Obese people spend 40 percent more on health care — or $1,429 more per year — than people of normal weight. Obesity also leads to greater risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. And it leads to a shortened life expectancy — on average, six to seven years less. Clearly, obesity has an enormous economic and physical price.

Obesity is a complex problem that’s about more than just calories in and calories out. Physiological, behavioral, social, environmental and economic circumstances all contribute. To ease the burden, we need a multiphased approach that goes well beyond just eating less.

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In fact, eating right and exercising isn’t easy — even for people with the resources. It’s especially hard for members of hard-to-reach, high-risk populations. Studies show that access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables is limited to nonexistent in some areas of the country. In these “healthy food vacuums,” individuals gravitate to cheaper, readily available foods with limited nutritional value.

Obesity cannot be dismissed as it becomes apparent during youth and persists through adulthood. About 25 million kids — nearly one in every three young people — are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. If current trends continue, today’s children could be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents. About 70 percent become overweight adults, leading to an increase in cardiovascular disease, America’s No. 1 killer. If we do not fight obesity, we will fail in our responsibility to make life better for future generations.

At home, turning off the TV, preparing nutritious meals for the whole family and engaging in simple exercise are key initial steps. At school, we can do a lot as well.

Three years ago, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the American Heart Association’s partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation, made a commitment to cut the calories our kids get in schools. By working with the food and beverage industry, we brokered landmark agreements that led to improvements in snacks and beverages sold in schools. This included reducing portion sizes, improving nutrient content and reducing the calories of beverages sold in schools. Seventy-nine percent of U.S. schools have compliant contracts with bottlers that follow the Alliance’s recommendations — showing that we have the means to give our kids healthier choices.

Quality physical education is also key to combating childhood obesity. That’s why the Fitness Integrated with Teaching (FIT) Kids Act being considered by Congress is so important. It would require schools to report on the quality and quantity of physical education they provide, and give schools opportunities to increase physical activity. Every elementary school child needs at least 150 minutes per week of physical education, and middle and high school students need 225 minutes per week.

Equal attention must be paid to adults — at home and at work. More than half of U.S. adults don’t engage in regular physical activity. Fitting in just 30 minutes a day of exercise can lower the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many other problems. And creating community settings that encourage more walking and bicycling may help people avoid sedentary lifestyles. In fact, research shows that some people may live up to two additional hours for every hour of moderate physical activity. Surprisingly, a simple exercise like a brisk walk is sufficient for many adults.

Similarly, employers who commit to promoting health and preventing chronic diseases reap the rewards. For every dollar spent on wellness programs, the return on investment to the employer ranges from $1 to $3.50 in health care savings and absenteeism costs.

Employees need health education and screenings, access to healthy foods, a time and place to exercise and information on how these activities can be beneficial. The results? Healthier, more productive employees and higher job satisfaction. And anyone can get involved in the American Heart Association’s Start! program, which encourages people to get healthier by moving more.

Restaurants can also play a leading role in fighting obesity by putting nutrition information on menus, cooking with healthier ingredients and offering more reasonable portion sizes. The average cheeseburger has grown, packing 590 calories — nearly double what it was two decades ago, and a typical serving of fries has nearly tripled in size. Four states and at least 11 local districts have passed legislation requiring restaurants to include calorie counts on menus, and the measure has been introduced in 26 more states and in Congress.

For systemic change, we must address the obesity issue where people live, work and play by making comprehensive, sustainable policy and environmental changes. By integrating these changes into broader strategies that impact our nation’s health and economic security, we can keep our generational commitment and create a healthier and more productive nation.

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