Fighting Obesity

The Center for Disease Control recently sponsored the first “Weight of the Nation” conference, where it was announced that the medical cost of obesity in the United States each year is $147 BILLION. Almost one-third of American adults are officially categorized as obese, with rates in many (mostly Southern) states approaching 40%. Even Oprah Winfrey is overweight again.

What’s the solution? The CDC has a standard laundry list of recommendations to stop the obesity epidemic, but it’s the same things we’ve been told for years: healthier food choices, lower caloric intake, more physical exercise. This is all old news, yet obesity rates continue to rise.

So we’d like to suggest some changes in perspective for all of us – the first of which is to encourage support from selected “influencers” who can connect with large numbers of people.

One such program is right in our backyard: the Big Sur International Marathon’s JUST RUN program. As we said, the formula for what works is no secret: less food, more activity. The Just Run program instills this lesson in elementary school children, and gives them opportunities to make healthy choices from a very early age. Good habits start young.

Our educational system can go one step further and make physical education mandatory in all schools. Programs can be supported with minimal cost, even at schools without a dedicated PE teacher – all it takes is a committed volunteer to get students walking or jogging every day. Healthy activity is just as important to our kids’ quality of life as art and music and great literature.

Parents play a key role as well. We should teach our kids to be participants in athletics instead of spectators. Modern-day sporting events (and their accompanying advertisers) emphasize tailgating, beer drinking, and pigging out on unhealthy food just as much as they inspire sandlot games and schoolyard shoot-arounds. It’s our job as parents to remind kids that the fun of sports is in doing, not watching.

Professional sports leagues can even get in on the act. Imagine if championship sporting events had associated running races, like a marathon on Super Bowl Sunday, or a 5K before the local pro golf tournament. Have the pro athletes make an appearance beforehand, or provide discount tickets to encourage participation.

Another approach is to borrow a page from the anti-smoking playbook, and make it cost-prohibitive for people to be unhealthy.

For instance, what if you had to pay for cable or Internet screen time in the same way that you pay for excess usage of water or electricity? Since obsessive screen watching makes people less active and obese – how about creating a graduated “sin tax” beyond a certain threshold?

Insurance companies can base their premium rates on physical fitness tests like the ones that used to be given in grade schools. Cardiovascular fitness is the most important predictor of overall health – and if you struggle with a 2-mile test, chances are that your health is lousy. People can be recertified every 2 or 3 years, just like smog inspections, where an independent timer verifies your 2 mile time, and insurance rates would correspond to your speed. Would that make you take your fitness more seriously?

These ideas may sound crazy – but that’s indicative of a larger problem, which is complacency to let things carry on the same way they’re currently going. If prioritizing our health continues to be seen as the “counterculture” approach, we’re in for far more troubling costs in the days ahead – both from a health standpoint, and a financial one.

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