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Obesity's recession-like effect on America's economy

First lady Michelle Obama's announcement this week of creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity has raised an issue that is crucial to our economic future. Every year, obesity costs our economy more than half as much as the recent recession did in its first 12 months.

Aside from being a major health problem and a personal tragedy for tens of millions of Americans, including 12 million children, obesity is having an effect on the U.S. economy that is the equivalent of a recession a year, every year, unless and until we get the problem under control. In fact, the United States spends 1 percent of GDP — or $147 billion a year — treating obesity-related ailments, according to an online article in Health Affairs published last July. The first 12 months of the recession, on the other hand, caused our economy to contract by 1.9 percent. But recessions end as part of the business cycle. The economic cost of obesity just keeps going — and growing.

Obesity's cost to the U.S. economy has doubled in the last 10 years. That's four times the rate of inflation.

The economic consequences of obesity show up every day in American offices, factories and other places of work. Over the course of a year, obesity-related disorders are responsible for nearly 40 million lost workdays, 239 million restricted activity days, and 63 million doctor visits by employees across the country, the Department of Health and Human Services reports.

While obesity is rampant in the workplace, it shows up first in the classroom. Today, nearly one-third of American children are overweight or even obese. The problem is starting earlier than ever: The obesity rate for children 6-11 has more than quadrupled in the past four decades. And it is showing signs of getting even worse: Two-thirds of children and teens do not meet daily exercise guidelines, and 80 percent fail to meet daily fruit and vegetable consumption guidelines.

One can measure the cost of childhood obesity in dollars — about $14 billion a year in direct health expenses. And one can measure it in the growth of such ailments as type 2 diabetes, asthma and even cardiovascular disease, among children. It is hard to believe that we now see children developing high blood pressure. This is not only a mounting health problem. It is a looming economic challenge. There is a 70 percent chance that an obese teenager will become an obese adult, saddling U.S. businesses with rising insurance costs, increasing sick leave, and decreasing productivity.

But while the problems' costs are high, so are the potential benefits of solving it. When it comes to increasing productivity, improving the health of employees is one of the best investments a company can make. A recent meta-analysis of studies in Health Affairs found that for every dollar companies spend on employee wellness, medical costs fall an average of $3.27. No wonder many employers are trying to make the work environment health-promotion zones, through healthier cafeteria and vending choices, renovated stairwells and pedometer programs. Many businesses are providing a range of incentives — financial and non-financial — for healthy lifestyle behaviors. Many are sharing information with employees to foster greater awareness of health risks and ways to shed pounds and become fit. There is also a growing commitment in corporate America to "energy balance" — a science-based approach to balancing the calories we consume (through a healthy diet) with the calories we expend through physical activity.

Meanwhile, more and more employers are realizing that when it comes to worker wellness, home is even more important than work. Healthy living loves healthy company; few things encourage an employee to follow a healthy diet more than a family that is doing the same.

That's why many companies are not just focusing on the employee, but also the employee's spouse and children. Employers aren't just offering incentives to encourage employees to participate in wellness programs; they are upping the inducements to get employees' family members into the plan as well.

Here, government can provide support, through tax credits or tax-favored treatment of wellness programs and employers' financial incentives.


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