May 1, 2003 – Battle of the Bulge 

Expanding waistlines fuel runaway health-care costs

O besity in the United States has reached epidemic proportions and is expected to continue growing.

At current growth rates, obesity threatens to affect more than one quarter of the U.S. population by 2005 and a third of the population by 2013, according to Dr. Alberto Colombi, PPG’s corporate medical director. “Each year, employers -- including PPG -- spend significant dollars in health-care benefits for employees and dependents with coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, gall bladder disease and stroke – all of which are related to obesity,” Colombi said.

A survey of 3,500 PPG employees found 8 percent are seriously overweight (with a body mass index or BMI of more than 35), 17 percent are very overweight (BMI of 30.0 to 34.9), and 22 percent are moderately overweight.

Costs of medical claims involving high-risk (but modifiable) factors and diseases influenced by weight are estimated at more than $3.6 million for 10,000 employees, Colombi said. Indirect costs to related productivity loss are estimated to be twice as much, he added.

While some people claim that maintaining a healthy weight is simply a matter of self-control, obesity is a complicated issue with many contributing factors, Colombi said. “Understanding these issues is a starting point for learning how to manage your weight,” he said.

Five factors influence weight gain: a person’s genetics, nature of work, overwhelming availability of food, physical environment, and the social obsession with being thin.

Today, removal of physical activity from routine tasks contributes to obesity. “For many, technology has eliminated the need for physical exertion during the workday,” Colombi said. “Not only do most jobs require little physical movement, people now work longer hours, which increases the time they remain sedentary.”

One week comprises 168 hours, about 70 percent of which most adults spend devoted to sedentary activities. Adults average 47 hours per week at work, 17 hours sitting in front of the television and 51 hours sleeping. “This combines for about 115 sedentary hours per week,” he said. “That’s almost five days of not moving.”

American food habits also contribute to obesity. “With vanishing discretionary time, people turn to faster, cheaper, more convenient forms of food,” Colombi said. “Add to that the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’ and it’s easy to understand why we’re seeing so many super-sized waistlines.”

Consumers are caught between yearning for a thin body and an environment that promotes the opposite. “The desire for an unrealistically svelte body -- like so many on TV -- only discourages overweight individuals from taking small incremental steps that will lead to a healthy, reasonable weight loss over time,” he said.

All of this translates into a nation of overweight adults, children and senior citizens who are pushing health-care costs upward as they inevitably develop diseases and musculo-skeletal conditions caused by carrying too much weight.

The good news, Colombi said, is there is a way out of this spiral of weight gain:

  • Get moving. Build movement into your daily routine. Park farther from your destination, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk on your lunch break. Find opportunities to add movement to your workday and leisure time.
  • Eat sensibly and in moderation. Start by making reasonable adjustments, such as gradually reducing the size of food portions. Pay attention to the amount of fat and sodium in your diet. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Choose healthy snacks instead of vending machine treats.
  • Plan an exercise program. You don’t have to exercise at a health club or as part of an organized program. Find activities that work best for you and fit your schedule. You can walk on your own or with a friend. Start slowly and build up to longer distances. Make exercise part of your weekly routine.
  • Be realistic. You didn’t gain excess weight in a week or two, so don’t think you’ll lose it quickly. A long-term, reasonable change in your eating and exercise habits can be very effective. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unattainable goals. Remember – any progress you make will cause you to feel better and improve your health. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks, such as eating more than planned. Just refocus, recommit and do better the next day.

For more information, browse through the information provided in the Take 5 section under Healthy Living.

Did you know?

  • Obesity is a major risk factor for stroke, independent of high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol and other common indicators.
  • For most men, an increase in weight of seven to eight pounds results in a 6-percent increase in the risk of stroke.
  • One way to help your overweight child is to be a role model. If your children see you are physically active and have fun, they are more likely to be active and stay active for the rest of their lives.
  • Research suggests that losing 1/2 to 2 pounds a week by eating better and exercising more is the best way to lose weight and keep it off.
  • Don’t try to lose weight by skipping meals. A healthier way to lose weight is to eat many small meals throughout the day that include a variety of nutritious, low-fat and low-calorie foods.
  • It doesn’t matter what time of day you eat--it’s how much you eat during the whole day and how much exercise you get that make you gain or lose weight.
  • Determine your optimal weight by measuring your Body Mass Index (BMI). To calculate your BMI, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.
  • For assistance in losing weight, check the American Obesity Association Web site.

U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services

Healthfinder—links to more than
1,800 health-releated organizations