By Joe Huber

The Obesity Epidemic - America's Most Pressing Health Concern

An epidemic of major importance, with terminal consequences in some cases, is sweeping the country. As we enter a new century, Americans are beginning to realize they have become the most overweight population on earth, and are getting heavier. The Journal of the American Medical Association (October 27, 1999) devoted a recent issue to the topic and reported that since 1991 the numbers of obese Americans-that is, 35 to 50 pounds overweight-had risen from one in eight to nearly one in five.

Instead of a public health crusade against this epidemic, our society appears more accepting of Americans becoming even more overweight than they are today. In his book, The Fat of the Land (1997), Dr. Michael Fumento noted, "Perhaps worst of all there is no end in sight to this epidemic. The AIDS epidemic, like all infectious disease epidemics before it, has followed a bell-shaped curve and is now in decline. But there is not such a natural constraint on obesity. It is the one disease that can just keep getting worse and worse."

This epidemic is not just affecting adults. Obese parents often have overweight children. The New England Journal of Medicine (September 25,1997) reported, "Obesity in one or both parents probably influences the risk of obesity in their offspring because of . shared genes or environmental factors within families."

Moreover, it appears all children are at risk today. Lifestyle changes of the past three decades -less recess and physical education, coupled with more teens in the work force and spending increasing amounts of time on the computer and watching TV during their leisure time-have potentially placed every school age child at risk. The latest statistics from The Physician and Sports Medicine (February, 2000) supporting this trend are staggering. For example--

Medical Issues

As obese adults, individuals are at increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CNN, October 5, 2000), obesity accounts for more than 300,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S., second only to tobacco-related deaths. Obesity also leads to numerous chronic health conditions that do not necessarily kill, but can make life less positive, including arthritis and diabetes.

Today, obese children often confront chronic health conditions. At a meeting of the American Diabetes Association (June 12, 2000), Type IT diabetes was reported as increasing at an alarming rate among teenagers-a disease that was previously rarely seen in anyone much before middle age.

Sadly, as noted, America's youths are now more sedentary than ever. A recent National Association of Sport and Physical Education survey presented in Sports Illustrated (April 24, 2000), reported virtually every state had reduced its physical education requirement since the 1960s. Consider--

The Future

Currently, the good news is that the nation is beginning to address the obesity epidemic with great fervor. In Healthy People 2010 (January, 2000), both overweight/obesity and lack of physical activity are presented as the nation's most pressing health concerns. In addition, the 1996 Surgeon General's report, Physical Activity and Health, introduced Donna Shalala's rationale for asking not just for an increase in physical activity during school hours for all students, but also year-round access to gymnasiums, fitness centers, and playing fields.

We are much more knowledgeable about the short- and longterm benefits of physical activity and the perils of a sedentary lifestyle. But will concerned educators and parents raise this issue with parent groups, as well as state and local boards of education? Will Americans alter their views of exercise- "One that goes beyond regarding fitness as a fad or the province of marathon runners and the hard-body set and considering it instead as a nec_ssary part of our daily routine?" (The Wall Street Journal, May 1,2000). Finally, do Americans have the will to initiate a campaign akin to the nation's war on tobacco-one of stemming the epidemic of obesity and promoting active lifestyles for all Americans?