Has the Tide Turned in Obesity Battle?


For years, government agencies have been reporting on the growing girth of Americans. For years, the media has been focusing on these numbers and how they are affecting longevity, medical costs and productivity in the work force. For years, our industry has tried to get the word out that exercise and good nutrition are necessary to combat this epidemic.

So why was I surprised to read recently that the obesity rate has stalled? The rates for women and children have held steady for 10 years, and for men, the rate has held steady for five years. Does that mean that the government, the media and our industry have finally been heard and that people are responding?

I'm not quite ready to jump up and down for joy just yet, especially since one-third of adults still are classified as obese. I'll be much happier when I see an actual decrease in the obesity numbers, but I guess you have to start with a plateau.

What do we need to reverse it? Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times that the data are promising, but to reverse the trend, we need policy changes or environmental changes. Some experts suggest that, like the push to decrease smoking, the only way to lower the obesity rate is to implement new policies that penalize those who engage in unhealthy behaviors or offer incentives related to exercise and food, possibly through taxation or bans on advertising of certain foods.

For some people, the idea of the government getting involved in taxing goods or banning items related to people's personal choices is deplorable. If someone wants to risk getting cancer by smoking or risk dying of obesity-related diseases, then that is their choice. The government should stay out of it.

The problem is, the government already is involved in this — as are you and I. We end up paying for the increased medical problems of these individuals. It costs us in higher insurance premiums or higher taxes as the government picks up the tab. Why not penalize people who engage in risky behaviors rather than penalize those who choose to engage in healthy behaviors?

If it takes higher taxes on junk food, then I'm all for it. However, that doesn't mean we should tax healthy choices, such as health club memberships or personal training sessions. That only goes toward making these healthy choices less affordable.

This obesity plateau means that our population is sitting at the top of a mountain from which they could tip forward to a healthier weight or backwards to further increase the obesity rate. The health club industry needs to do whatever it can to make sure it pushes forward.

We need to fight taxes on fitness memberships and look for ways to make memberships more affordable and desirable for the 84 percent of the population that does not belong to a club. And when people finally get to the point where they are ready to join a fitness facility, we need to make sure that we welcome them — truly welcome them — without judging them for their weight and offer programs that work for them, not just for the very fit. They need specifics on what to do, and they need a hand to hold.

In the end, people want to be healthy. No one wants to die of lung cancer or a heart attack at age 40 because they engaged in unhealthy behavior. Americans are hearing us, so let's step up our battle plan.

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