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Americans: increasingly unhealthy, too fat

As a group, our children and grandchildren will not enjoy the economic opportunities taken advantage of by the Baby Boomer generation. Excluding the Depression era, they will become the first in our history to have less economic opportunity than their parents. As a parent and grandparent, this is a disturbing prediction.

Recently, I read an even more disturbing prediction related to health and lifespan.

The present generation may have a shorter lifespan and experience more health problems than their parents due to poor diets and lifestyle habits. Much has been written about the growing number of overweight and obese people in our society. Obesity is considered, by doctors, to be the leading health crisis in America. It should certainly gain our attention and action more than the possibility of a bird flu pandemic.

Mississippi ranks near the top of the list in the percentage of persons who are overweight or obese. An alarming increase is occurring in young children. A recent University of Southern Mississippi survey found nearly 27% of our first-graders were overweight. That percentage rose to more than 40% by eighth-grade.

Statistically, persons who maintain a proper weight, exercise and refrain from smoking will live 13 years longer and enjoy better life quality than those who do not. Excess weight, lack of exercise and smoking are major factors in heart disease and late-onset diabetes.

That bottom line for business

Why does this matter to the business world?
An additional $33 billion is spent on healthcare as the direct result of unhealthy eating habits, sedate lifestyles and smoking. Lost productivity adds another $9 billion cost to business and industry.

It has been reported that overweight workers cost employers big bucks — up to $2,500 a year in related healthcare bills and lost work for each obese employee.

Some things change, but…

Years ago, when I began walking for health benefits, people often stopped and asked me if I needed a ride. Walking meant that you didn’t own transportation or perhaps your automobile was broken.

Around this same time period, a young assistant manager I knew rode his bike to work for health reasons. His boss called him in and told him that he must ride in an automobile to work, because riding a bike made it appear that his pay was insufficient to afford a car. It was taken as a reflection on his employer.

Fortunately that part of our culture has changed.
The part of the culture that hasn’t changed for us Southerners is our diet and lack of exercise. We still love those heavy, fat-laden foods. Because most of us live in rural or suburban areas, we also love our cars and trucks.

Each time I visit a major city, I am struck by the amount of walking done by persons living in the city and by the fact that city dwellers have fewer persons who are overweight or obese than those in my home state.

Boosting productivity, saving money

The good news for business is that we can help change this “culture of health” and benefit our business at the same time.

It is estimated that a business saves $8 in health-related cost and increased productivity for each dollar that it spends to promote healthy living.

The possibilities are limitless.

Remove the junk food and soft drink machine from your break room and replace them with healthier choices. Sponsor smoking cessation programs. Provide quit-smoking aides. Give perks or incentives to overweight employees who lose weight.

Sponsor games and activities outside of work.

Encourage breast, prostate, diabetes and hypertension exams. Pay for gym memberships. Provide a couple of 15-minute walking breaks each day. Structure “fitness challenges” between departments and employees. Provide shower facilities, treadmills and weight-training equipment.

Help change our “health culture.” Increase your productivity and save money!

Archie King, LPC, is a human resources consultant who lives in Madison. His column appears from time to time in the Mississippi Business Journal. E-mail him at aking4@jam.rr.net.

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