Obesity: A Big Fat Problem We Must Weigh In On

26 Jul, 2012 Bob Wilson


The most telling part of Todd Whitthorne's presentation at AASCIF 2012 in Portland this week was not what he said. It was the empty chairs to which he said it. Whitthorne, CEO of the Cooper Center in Texas, was there to describe why corporate America cannot afford to ignore the impact of increasing obesity and inactivity on the bottom line. Unfortunately, the fact that about 1/3rd of the attendees left the room prior to his introduction was indicative of a bigger problem. 

Whitthorne himself noted the empty chair syndrome at the beginning of his presentation. At a corporate level, we have yet to fully weigh in on this big fat problem. Or maybe I should say big "fat" problem.

His presentation was excellent. Both witty and informative, he spoke to the importance of how employees and employers must work together to focus on fitness, instead of just weight, as a method of reducing health care and workers' compensation costs while enhancing employee quality of life. The facts are downright frightening, and if we were paying attention as an industry we would have a better grasp of the cataclysmic issues growing before us. Whitthorne cited statistics that indicated 42% of Americans will be categorized as obese by 2020. 8 year old children now spend an average of 53 hours a week on electronic devices, exercising only their thumbs and numbing their brains. The cost of health care for the morbidly obese can be 6 times the cost of a relatively fit person.

Too bad we were all out getting ice cream. We could have used information like that. 

Of course, many of us are aware of the problem. Any traveler can tell you that people are getting bigger. I am writing this post on the flight back from Portland. The fact that I have to type with one hand because my left arm has been lost in the stomach folds of my seat mate generally supports this hypothesis. 

The problem, it seems, is we are just not fully aware of the consequences. As employers, our ignorance will cost us dearly. There are relatively small steps we can take to develop and encourage a climate of fitness in the office. Some of the ideas I heard this week were motivational rewards for activities like using the stairs, reduced health plan deductibles as a reward for specific behavior, and developing active wellness plans that are driven from the top. To that last point, it is clear that none of this will happen in a leadership vacuum. Corporate managers need to embrace the philosophy of fitness and healthy living, and do so by example. It is not simply enough to establish a policy and then ignore it. We have to be engaged in the process. Those of us with fiduciary responsibilities to our shareholders and bottom line accountability in our operations must recognize that this is an issue that will cost - and cost big. 

In the insurance industry this is a multiple layer problem. We not only have exposure as employers, but must deal with this issue through the claims we manage; essentially inheriting the problems of employers down the line. We need to check in, weigh in, get proactive, and lead by example. 

That means the next time someone wants to talk about improving employee fitness, we should park our fat fannies and listen to what they have to say.


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