The 14th Annual State of Obesity Report contains a mixture of good and bad news in the nationwide battle against obesity. The report, a project of the Trust for American Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, indicates the rate of increase in adult obesity rates is slowing, but still rising nonetheless. Overall, the medical costs associated with obesity are estimated to be between $147-$210 billion dollars PER YEAR! For those of us sequestered in the world of coaching and training, the annual State of Obesity report provides valuable perspective: While factions within sports nutrition argue over optimal macronutrient compositions for endurance performance, whether athletes should consume sports drinks or plain water, and whether fat or carbohydrate is a better fuel for performance, more than one third of American adults are obese.
Areas where we are Winning
While the State of Obesity report contains a lot of bad news, there are some bright spots worth mentioning.
- Adult obesity rates remained unchanged in 45 states and declined in one (Kansas) compared to last year.
- Obesity rates for children 5 years old and under have declined from 14% to 10% since 2003-2004.
- The number of high school students drinking soda daily dropped from 27% in 2013 to 20.4% in 2015.
- Adult inactivity rates decreased in 32 states between 2015 and 2016. People are getting a little bit more active, but 45% of Americans are not physically active enough to experience health benefits.
Areas where we are Losing
Honestly, there are so many areas where we are losing ground in the fight against obesity that it’s difficult to pick the highlights.
- Nearly 38% of American adults are obese, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data from 2013-2014.
- Five states have obesity rates above 35%: West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
- West Virginia ranks worst in adult obesity: 37.7%. Colorado ranks “best” at 22.3% but saw the greatest percentage increase between 2015-2016, despite having the lowest rate of physical inactivity at 17.9%.
- 25% of young adults who attempt to join the military are turned away due to inadequate fitness or overweight.
- Only 27% of American high school students were physically active for 60 minutes or more per day in 2015.
Why Athletes Should Care About Nationwide Obesity Data
While I don’t have precise data, the audience for this blog most likely has an obesity rate far below national or state averages. You’re not obese, so besides having compassion for those who are, what does it matter to you? Unfortunately, the social, economic, healthcare, and even national security implications of high obesity rates affect us all.
Competition for limited resources
Government resources are limited and when significant subpopulations need more resources, the money has to come from somewhere. Not only is the government and insurance industry directing more healthcare resources to treat obesity-related medical conditions, we are all also paying for a wide range of state and national programs funded for the sole purpose of reducing the obesity rate. The expenditures are worth it and the State of Obesity report shows great return on investment for anti-obesity programs. It costs less to prevent obesity than it does to deal with the cascade of expenses that stem from it. Nevertheless, a ton of money that could be directed to other areas, including infrastructure and education, are instead being spent on obesity prevention and treatment.
Obesity contributes to inequality
Obesity saddles individuals and families with a host of disadvantages, making it harder to achieve the American Dream. Despite body-positivity and anti-bullying campaigns, overweight and obese children are still at increased risk for being bullied and suffering from depression. Childhood obesity is correlated with lower educational performance and slower progress. Obese adults have greater absenteeism from work and lower overall work productivity. Taken together, these effects reduce educational accomplishment, which limits career potential, slows career development, and contributes to slower – or nonexistent – wage growth. Regardless of wages, obese adults spend more of their income on healthcare-related expenses. Ironically, this can exacerbate obesity by discouraging spending on healthier foods and opportunities for exercise.
Rates of obesity are higher for people with lower socioeconomic status, but there are so many factors it is difficult to determine a causal relationship between poverty and obesity (in either direction). However, one consequence that affects childhood obesity is that kids living in lower socioeconomic areas have less access to parks, pools, recreational facilities, and after-school sports. This only helps to perpetuate the cycle of obesity. Promoting a healthier, more active population won’t erase inequality, but efforts to prevent and treat obesity help reduce the educational and economic disadvantages obesity contributes to.
On the flip-side, it appears the benefits of living an active lifestyle from childhood all the way through adulthood provide significant advantages related to improved educational development and reduced healthcare costs, while can contribute to greater career progression and improved financial security. If you want to get ahead, it pays to stay fit.
Obesity Makes Us Less Safe
Excessive weight and body fat percentage are the leading reasons willing recruits are denied the opportunity to serve in the nation’s military. Across the military branches, some physical fitness standards have been lowered in an effort to help more recruits make the grade. On the public safety side, millions of firefighters, police officers, and first responders are overweight and obese. According to the National Fire Protection Association, sudden cardiac death was the leading cause of on-duty death for firefighters in 2015.
Initially, when I saw a report that 70% of US firefighters were overweight or obese I thought the researchers had potentially misidentified muscular and fit firefighters for as obese because they would show up as having a high Body Mass Index (this is a common occurrence for muscular individuals). But the researchers had taken steps to avoid misidentification and still came up with that 70% value! Additional research cited in this article from FireRescue1.com shows obese firefighters have lower aerobic fitness and lower performance on timed readiness tests. This study suggests similar consequences for law enforcement officers, a population with one of the highest obesity rates (40.5%) of any profession in the US. Obesity puts first responders at risk for their own health, as well as the people they are trying to save.
Perspective is Important
Now that we have such incredible access to information it has become easier to go 10 miles deep within the area you are passionate about and lose all perspective of how that areas of interest fits into the world writ large. Optimizing fitness and performance is important. I’ve dedicated my life to studying sports science and helping athletes achieve their goals. But it’s also important to pick your head up sometimes and recognize how fortunate you are to be on the active and healthy side of reports like the State of Obesity. No matter how fit you are right now, stick with your training. It’s worth the time and the effort!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS