5 New Year’s Resolutions to (Literally) Restore America’s Health

What happens when a nation loses its health? Should we even care about the choices our fellow citizens make? After all, obesity is just a personal responsibility issue, right? Wrong.

  • It’s a national economic issue. Obesity is a trillion-dollar expense that drains $200 billion from everybody’s economy—healthy and unhealthy alike—year after year.
  • It’s a societal decay issue. Inactive communities suffer more bullying, crime, addiction, abuse and poor school performance.
  • It’s a longevity issue. For the first time ever, our kids are projected to live a shorter lifespan than us.
  • It’s now even a national security issue. Obesity has become the leading cause of ineligibility for people who want to join the Army. Between 1998 and 2010, the number of active-duty military personnel considered overweight or obese tripled.

We need to reverse the unhealthy tipping point and reclaim America’s health – for the benefit of us all.

Here are 5 healthy resolutions that need to be acted on ASAP to make it happen.

Resolution #1: Reframe the conversation.

We don’t have a childhood obesity problem; we have an adult obesity problem. We need to turn the lens of scrutiny away from vending machines, computer games and kids, and place it squarely on adults. Children don’t buy groceries or establish family habits. And the data tell us that if one parent is obese, the child has a 50 percent chance of imitating them (if both are obese, that number climbs to 80 percent).

Resolution #2: Use money to change behavior.

Minnesota’s largest health insurers subsidize health club memberships based on usage. If someone uses a fitness club more than 12 times a month, the health insurance company gives them $20 to offset membership dues. Does the subsidy work? On average, members who take part in the subsidy program utilize the club 9 times a month, and 88 percent remain active after the first year. Members who don’t participate average 3 visits per month, and only 60 percent remain active after one year. Weekly usage rates triple; long-term usage rates climb 50 percent. Proof that money—even $20 a month—changes behavior.

With obesity-related medical costs projected to exceed $200 billion a year, this is trillion-dollar problem for the current generation. It’s time to stop spending reactively and to start investing in proactive measures. Let’s incentivize positive behavior by providing fitness tax credits to families, or designing employer incentives to encourage a culture of wellness. If the government is going to take a vested interest in providing healthcare solutions for its citizens, it needs to invest in getting them healthy.

Resolution #3: Develop a “Personal Health Score.”

Imagine if we had a Personal Health Score (PHS) that would rise and fall based on an individual’s health choices. Imagine the Google-like algorithm behind it that could intelligently process gender and myriad other factors, and avoid potential pitfalls like unfairly comparing 55-year-olds with 25-year-olds. A PHS could not only determine health and car insurance rates; it could improve lending and employment application processes (because with ever-escalating health care costs, healthy employees are always in demand). Sure, a PHS would take years to set up. It would have to factor in pre-existing conditions, score different behaviors fairly, and earn the support of government agencies, the medical community, healthcare providers and insurance companies. But if we can do it for credit, why can’t we do it for health?

Resolution #4: Prescribe exercise as medicine.

The current healthcare system is incentivized to manage chronic illnesses like obesity, not cure them. More visits and more tests equal more money, and the gap between being a disease management system and a proactive healthcare system is still far too wide. To bridge it, we must instruct health professionals to discuss controllable behavioral issues with patients, create handouts with talking points, give them tips on how to discuss the sensitive topic of weight management, and encourage them to literally prescribe physical activity or nutritional counseling. Any educated health professional will validate that in many cases, exercise is medicine. But patients will only take that medicine if their doctors prescribe it.

We’ve seen countless Anytime Fitness members happily throw away most or all of their medications just by hitting the club 30 minutes a day. More scientific studies have proven that exercise makes a dramatic difference in managing chronic diseases and conditions—and, according to the doctor quoted above, it actually costs about one-third less to care for active patients than inactive ones.

Resolution #5: Get physical activity and nutrition in schools.

Kids’ test scores are decreasing along with their physical activity. We can change that by getting gym, recess and other movement back into students’ daily routines. Jack Olwell, incoming president of the Minnesota Association for Health, Physical Education and Dance stated:

If you really want to increase your test scores, you have to get off your seat and you have to get on your feet. And it’s more than a theory. It’s a well-established fact. The more active you are, the more brain cells you create. If you stand up—just stand up—you improve your brain activity by 8 percent.

In addition to improving test scores, we can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by getting kids to burn off just 64 more calories per day – the number of calories U.S. kids need to trim from their daily diet if they’re going to meet the federal goals for slashing obesity by 2020. Without cutting those calories—either by eating less, exercising more or both—a child or teen in 2020 would tip the scales at nearly 4 lbs. more than a kid of the same age weighed in 2007-08, according to a Columbia University study published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. That would result in more than 20 percent of children being classified as obese, while the current figure is 17 percent.

And, while we’re at it, let’s teach our children about nutrition, caloric intake, carbohydrates, protein, fat and treating food as a healthy, sustainable energy source—not just a meal. After all, schools shouldn’t just prepare our kids for work, but for life.

Do you think any or all of these resolutions will help the country reclaim its health?

photo credit: Thomas Hawk

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Chuck Runyon is the co-founder and CEO of Anytime Fitness, the world’s largest and fastest-growing coed fitness chain, and the author of Working Out Sucks: And Why It Doesn't Have To).