Two decades after the fitness and health movement started revving up, Americans have done the opposite of what you’d expect: We’ve gotten sicker, we suffer from more chronic diseases, and we’ve gotten fatter. Plus, the result of all those ills have skyrocketed the cost of health care.
That news comes from the 20th edition of America’s Health Rankings put out by the American Public Health Association just as the holiday season of sugar, spice and indulgence kicks into gear.
One problem, it seems, is the nation’s emphasis on finding treatments rather than promoting prevention, including physical activity and weight loss.
“As a nation, we are fighting the wrong health care battle. Although there is a wealth of evidence supporting the value of prevention as a way to save lives and save money, the majority of every health care dollar goes toward treating illness,” Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in a statement.
“Essentially, health reform should include a strong focus on prevention. Behaviors, such as smoking and obesity, are limiting our nation’s ability to make progress and costing billions in unnecessary, preventable health care costs.”
State by state
The rankings have been done for the last 20 years, evolving over time and relying on evaluations of historical data for health, environment and socio-economic status to determine benchmarks and rankings.
Vermont and Utah are two of the healthiest states, while Nevada, Oklahoma and some of the Southeastern states are some of the least healthy, the study found. When it comes to obesity, Colorado and Connecticut are the least obese, while Alabama and Mississippi have the highest number of obese people. States that have had the greatest success in the battle with obesity in the last 20 years are Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Wyoming and Florida.
Since the rankings have tracked data for the last two decades, it shows that Vermont has climbed upward for the last 12 years, moving from 20th in 1990 to this year’s most-healthy position.
“The primary drivers of poor health and high health care costs are behaviors -- tobacco use, poor diet, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption -- that are largely preventable,” said Robert J. Gould, Ph.D., president and CEO of Partnership for Prevention, in a statement. “The increasing incidence of chronic disease poses a severe financial threat to our health care system and economy, but even worse is what it portends for Americans in the future.”
Cost of obesity
The personal and national fiscal bottom line is where all that disease and extra weight settles. This year, because of rising obesity, the United Health Foundation commissioned a study to understand its effects on national health care in the coming decade. The report, by Kenneth E. Thorpe, Ph.D., Emory University professor and former deputy assistant secretary for health policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, found that if left to climb at the current rate, obesity will add nearly $344 billion to the nation’s annual health care costs by 2018 and account for more than 21 percent of health care spending.
Already, the United States spends more per capita than any other nation on health care, including $1.5 trillion in medical costs associated with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. These chronic, preventable conditions all have a direct link to smoking and obesity, the nation’s two largest national risk factors.
“Making progress against smoking and obesity is a critical step to successfully tackling the health reform our nation wants to achieve,” said Reed Tuckson, M.D., United Health Foundation board member and UnitedHealth Group executive vice president and chief of medical affairs, in a statement.
To read Thorpe’s study, click here.
You can also calculate how the nation will fare and how each state will fare compared to today’s costs by clicking here.
Not all bad news
Even with the dismal outlook when it comes to obesity, inactivity and related diseases, there have been some successes since 1990.
Over the past 20 years, the nation has seen significant declines in crime rates, infectious disease, smoking and infant mortality rates. The percent of the population that smokes has plummeted, from 29.5 percent of the population to 18.5 percent. Still, the group pointed out, that’s many millions who do still smoke -- with smoking being the leading preventable cause of disease and death.
What you can do
The group doesn’t just want to hand out bad news, however. Instead, on its website, it focuses on what the public, schools and businesses can do, and other groups want to play their part too.
>> Share the data and take a look at what it means in your state and how that compares to the national trends.
>> Take a look at the Health Actions Center on the website by clicking here. There the association that put out the rankings has tips, tools and programs broken down by group, from individuals to community leaders. For example, there are ideas for action as well as answers to common questions.
>> Consider participating in lobbying days by industry groups. In the spring each year, associations such as Outdoor Industry Association (www.outdoorindustry.org), Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (www.sgma.com) and IHRSA (www.ihrsa.org) hold community days where meetings with legislators are organized to promote the message of activity and health. Check with each one to determine dates and opportunities to participate.
>> The SGMA has been promoting a bill called PHIT, which encourages physically active lifestyles by using tax incentives to make sports, fitness and recreational activities more affordable. The PHIT Bill, introduced by Rep. Ron Kind, R-Wis., would change current federal tax law to allow for the deduction or use of pre-tax dollars to cover expenses related to sports, fitness and other physical activities. Click here to read a Jan. 28, 2009, SNEWS® story, “Pushing a fitness agenda in D.C.: You can help make the change.”
“One of the keys to successfully confronting the issue of obesity is to focus on prevention and one of the best ways to prevent obesity is with exercise. Naturally, an ideal way to introduce people to exercise is through P.E. programs in our schools. That’s the power of PEP,” said SGMA vice president of government relations Bill Sells in a statement.
For more details on how to get involved with PHIT, click here.
>> More resources are available at the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity by clicking here.
“Over the past 20 years, our national health care system has helped extend the length of life, but not the quality of life,” said United Health Foundation’s Tuckson. “Unhealthy behaviors are costing the United States billions in the treatment of preventable, chronic diseases.”