Emory Report
July 18, 2005
Volume 57, Number 35


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July 18, 2005
A heavy subject

Michael Johns is executive vice president for health affairs and ceo of the woodruff health sciences center


Obesity has been much in the news in the past year, and for good reason. The CDC declared it an epidemic, afflicting 30 percent of adults and 16 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 19. Obesity has doubled in the last 20 years, representing an unprecedented growth in girth for many Americans.

Why should we care about the growing percentage of fat in our bodies? Because obesity contributes to many diseases that adversely affect our health and diminish our quality of life. Obese people are at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis-related disabilities and some cancers.

And, as if all that weren’t cause enough for concern, it turns out that obesity is also very expensive. Researchers at the Rollins School of Public Health, led by Ken Thorpe, chair of health policy and management, have found that between 1987 and 2002, the share of private health spending attributable to obesity grew from $3.6 billion to $36.5 billion—a tenfold increase. In 2002, spending on care related to obesity accounted for 11.6 percent of all private health care spending, compared with just 2 percent in 1987. Health care spending for obese adults is now 56 percent higher than for normal-weight adults. It is one important factor in driving up the cost of both care and health insurance premiums here at Emory.

Also from 1987 to 2002, the share of obese people receiving treatment for high cholesterol, mental disorders and upper gastrointestinal disorders each increased about 10 percentage points.

Of particular significance is the link between obesity and diabetes. Between 1976 and 2000, the prevalence of obesity among U.S. adults more than doubled, from 14.5 percent to 30.4 percent. During that same period, the total prevalence of diabetes increased 53 percent.

The good news is that obesity is largely preventable and reversible. Back on the farm, life was a bit more active. Now, more than half of U.S. adults do not get enough physical activity in their day-to-day lives to provide health benefits. A third of young people in grades 9–12 do not have regular, vigorous physical activity. But we can change that.

Some people like a strenuous goal. The recent Peachtree Road Race was a good cause and a good focus for training, along with family, friends or colleagues. I was there, greeting more than 1,300 Emory participants—a great showing. There are fun events like this to aim for throughout the year, many of them near where most people live or work.

Other people prefer less strenuous activity, which is fine because healthy activity need not be strenuous. Moderate physical activity, such as 30 minutes of walking five or more times a week, can work. In 2001, we adopted “Making People Healthy” as the Woodruff Health Sciences Center motto. I distributed pedometers to all of our employees and announced a “10,000 steps a day” program. You can still see people walking on lunch breaks and before and after work.

Equally important is eating well. In 2003, only about 25 percent of U.S. adults and 22 percent of young people ate the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. By now, most of us know what foods are healthy. As with exercise, it just takes a bit of discipline to get with the program.

Regular physical activity and good eating habits help control weight, reduce your risk for heart attack, colon cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure—and can make you feel better, contributing to healthy bones, muscles and joints, fewer falls among older adults, relief from arthritis pain, and reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Best of all, regular exercise and healthy eating are fun, a terrific focus for activities with family and friends. So let’s put this heavy subject behind us—by at least 10,000 steps a day!