Guest Editorial: The high cost of obesity

In 1986, it was estimated that the cost of obesity in the United States amounted to about 5 percent of total health care spending. Today, that figure has more than tripled to 15 percent, meaning it costs us $350 billion a year to treat.
That’s bad enough. Worse is the prospect that the costs will continue to escalate and that Type 2 diabetes is becoming prevalent among children and teens.
In a CBS evening news report, New York City’s health commissioner said the effort to combat obesity and the resulting diabetes would require action on a variety of levels, but he made specific reference to two: getting physical education back into kids’ lives and making healthy foods more available.
Our priorities are so odd. The political drama of the age is the cost of health care and yet we can hardly lift a finger to make things better. All the focus is on treatment and almost none on prevention. Why should we need to be told that the lack of exercise is killing us?
We know diabetes is a growing problem amount the young, and we know all the collateral problems that come with the disease. We also know that the only common denominator to these students is school. As the New York health commissioner says, we need to get kids active again. That means getting schools to reintroduce physical education.
The lament from schools, of course, is that it always gets back to them. And it does. It’s our schools that are left to deal with a great deal of society’s dysfunctions.
But how many of those dysfunctions relate to health and our children’s sense of well-being?
A fair percentage.
And if the purpose of education is to prepare for the life ahead, then surely part of that responsibility should include eliminating the obstacles.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, there are two costs of obesity: direct and indirect. The direct costs deal with the expected health services; the indirect costs deal with things like lost work, higher insurance costs and lower wages. The research indicates that the annual additional cost for an obese man is $6,500 and for an obese woman it’s $8,300.
Over the course of a lifetime, that’s a lot of money.
But it’s more than an issue of money. In many respects it’s an issue of national character. We’re placing ourselves at risk and in so doing we’re dramatically reducing our quality of life. It affects everything we do. Our screen-obsessed culture has become so sedentary that exercise has almost become unusual, something done for competitive reasons, not something done to make you feel healthier and happier.
And, of course, there is almost no personal responsibility attached to one’s physical health. We live our lives the way we want and if anything goes wrong, we call the doctor or take a pill. We’ve become the most medicated society on earth.
Behaviors can be changed, but it’s enormously difficult, which explains, in part, the fact that Americans spend $40 billion a year on dieting alone.
It’s practically criminal to wait until habits are established when it’s well within our ability to deal with the challenge when a child first enters school. But it’s up to each of our communities to make our children’s health as important as any other class they are being taught.
The evidence is conclusive that exercise is part of the mental acuity necessary as we age. At the preK-12 levels, it would provide a more egalitarian setting with exercise being something that included everyone, instead of sports programs that included those so inclined (and the ones who can afford them). Establishing one’s health as a priority, and acting accordingly, would do more to rebuild the nation’s character/resolve than most anything else imaginable.
Once again, this should be a way Vermont could distinguish itself. We’re already designated as one of the nation’s healthiest states. Why not buck the national trend and figure out ways to take it up a notch with our children?

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