Forget Al Gore's PowerPoint map predicting the ominous crawl of global warming devastation; if you want a real jolt of "inconvenient truth" already present, check out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's map displaying an all out rampage of obesity rates flaring across the U.S.
You need hard evidence the nation's health is in serious decline? This is it – graphic depiction of lifestyle risk far more bloated than mere "middle aged spread." With barely a trace of obesity prevalence noted in the United States in 1985 to the current 30% of the U.S. population, it's obvious the problem is real and widespread. That's right – two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight or obese.
The avalanche impact of this trend is, to say the least, concerning. As the Journal of American Medical Association reported just last week, individuals need merely gain 20 pounds or more after age 50 to triple their risk for diabetes. Add to that the cardio, cancer and other risks inherent with weight gain, sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition, and the financial and health implications mount higher.
What's perhaps most frustrating about this trend – it's largely avoidable. Individual lifestyle choices continue to plague our declining health rates while multiplying unsustainable costs. The April 26 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine documents people who smoke, don't exercise, eat poorly and drink alcohol (all individual choices) are three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and nearly four times more likely to die from cancer. In fact, by participating in these unhealthy behaviors, individuals essentially tack on an additional twelve years of aging to their bodies than those who simply abstain from the same unhealthy behaviors.
Employers well know the negative impact of unhealthy behavior reaches beyond premature aging and death. There's also a hefty bill, ever mounting, to pay for unhealthy workers – both hidden in productivity declines and obvious in spiking health care tabs. Take the obesity problem alone – according to a 2006 CDC study, obese patients spend, on average, 42% more than others on health care.
But the quality of life costs to the individual participating in unhealthy habits are also obvious – we don't need a CDC study to tell us our smoking or sloth is costing us dearly. So why does the map keep showing the problem worsening? If the declining health trend is largely due to behavior choices, why aren't we making healthier choices?
The good news (more than good news – outstanding news) is we can. We can do many things to turn our health risks in a positive direction, and they are within our grasp more than we likely believe. The same study that predicts dire health consequences based on current national trends also indicates "modest but achievable adjustments to lifestyle behaviors are likely to have a considerable impact at both the individual and population levels." This is not only great news for individuals and their families, but also for the employers largely footing their health bills.
What constitutes as a "modest" lifestyle adjustment? A new Harvard research study finds that individuals can dramatically improve their health and reduce (or eliminate) obesity through routine, low impact exercise like brisk daily walks or biking. The old excuse that real exercise is too strenuous, time-consuming or requires a pricey membership to a fancy gym flies soundly out the window. We're talking a brisk walk daily, not a mountain climb. The proof is real that maintaining a healthy lifestyle takes motivation but not a lot of effort (relatively).
Knowing this, don't expect to see fitter employees or more sustainable health care costs anytime soon. In fact, until employers change the financing of health care and link unhealthy behavior directly to their employees' individual costs of health care, the downward spiral (and hulking CDC obesity map) is likely to continue. By blending personalized financial incentives with a fresh consumer experience and powerful social elements, getting healthy can be easier and more rewarding than ever. A much healthier map is within reach. But it requires change – both for employers and for individuals.