Fighting obesity leads to lower healthcare costs

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brent Johnson
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron
"Certified Healthy"

In February, Joel Urdang, the Vance Health Promotion Program coordinator, and I were in Norman for an awards luncheon for schools, businesses, restaurants and the like that were "Certified Healthy Oklahoma." Vance was honored as one of these, thanks to Joel's efforts here.

During the workshop the speaker talked about disease and healthcare costs.

We all know rising healthcare costs are a big topic nationally as well as in the Air Force.

The stats he shared were alarming.

Of every 100 employees, statistically:
69 are overweight; 36 of those are obese
12 have diabetes; three don't know it
39 are prediabetics (the body's biochemistry is starting to fail, but does not yet meet the criteria for diabetes)
33 have high blood pressure
33 have high triglycerides
19 smoke
95 fail to get enough exercise (150 minutes/week of moderate exercise)
62 have sleep issues
77 struggle with stress
9 suffer depressive issues

Understand that these numbers do not directly compare to the Air Force, since we are younger and healthier than the average company.

The rising cost of healthcare

Here are some more alarming statistics: The obesity rate in the 1960s was 13 percent of the U.S. population. In 2010 it was 36 percent, and by 2030 could be 42 percent -- almost half the adult population. Obesity rates are rising in children too (34 percent of Oklahoma children are obese). People who are overweight and obese are at risk for all kinds of preventable diseases.

Today's employers are looking at these numbers. They have realized that if you can fight obesity within the workplace, you can radically lower healthcare costs.

For example, obesity is the leading cause of diabetes, and the average patient without significant diabetes complications uses $2,600 a year in medical care. The average diabetic with complications costs the healthcare system $30,000 annually. In 2010 there were 26 million diabetics, and 79 million prediabetics. By 2050 one in three adults could be diabetic.

Making a positive change

A couple more stats: in 1822 the average American ate the amount of sugar found in one of today's 12-ounce sodas every five days. Now, we eat that much every seven hours.

In 1960 the average grocery store carried 5,900 products. In 2012 the average supermarket carried 42,686 items. Not all of these are food items, granted, but a lot are, and most of the new food items are not new fruits and vegetables. They are processed snacks and refined food items that are high in calories, simple carbohydrates and have nothing of nutritional value. They are nothing to which prehistoric man had access, and our physiology is still about the same as when the eating options were picked off a tree, or killed and cooked it over a fire (good rules by which to design your "perfect diet').

So what does it all mean?

1. "Walk the dog, even if you don't have one." Get off the couch and do SOMETHING. One hundred fifty minutes a week of moderate exercise amounts to 20 - 30 minutes of walking a day. And, make sure you add some strength activities. This may be easy for Airmen as we are required to pass an annual physical fitness exam, but you can share these activities with spouses, family and friends.

2. "What can you do for the rest of your life?" This applies to diet and exercise. Find your groove, make it part of your routine, and make sure you do it. Don't make huge changes that you cannot sustain. Tweak your diet. Make little changes around the edges, and see what happens. Switch to diet pop, swap orange juice for an orange (less calories, less sugar, positive nutrition remains the same), or swap out a granola or protein bar for fruit. Park at the outer edge of the parking lot and walk a little farther. Take the stairs. Beware of that insidious two-to three-pound weight gain per year. After 10 years, it'll matter a lot! Monitor your status every few months.

3. "Eat FOOD, not too much, mainly plants." Avoid anything that comes in a wrapper or a bag, is fried, or is something you can't pick or kill. I'm no angel in this regard. Since none of us can live only on twigs and bark, I try to eat only one piece of candy instead of three or four, and have just a couple pieces of pizza instead of five. Enjoy your food! You don't have to give up donuts or cookies ... just be careful how much and how often you eat them.

Take action now, educate yourself and your family, and don't find yourself 40 or 50 pounds overweight 20 years down the road.

A Chinese proverb says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." Start today!