WASHINGTON, DC — May was a busy month for introducing programs to combat the obesity problem, but whether any of these programs work will depend on whether one is passed and whether all are properly funded.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) introduced the Healthy Choices Act, which included both the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act and the Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act, two exercise promotion bills that provide tax benefits for certain fitness expenses. The two acts have been debated and introduced in Congress for many years but never passed. Both bills are still in Congress as standalone bills, too (PHIT HR 2105 and WHIP HR 2106/S.913).
“Making the healthy choice the easy choice for our families is essential to ensuring our quality of life,” Kind said when announcing the bill. “Easier access to the tools and education to prevent and treat obesity; affordable, nutritious food to promote a balanced diet; and an increased emphasis on physical activity to maintain our overall health is critical to achieving a healthy lifestyle.”
The Healthy Choices Act establishes body mass index as a vital sign, expands obesity treatment, expands preventive services and coverage of medical nutrition therapy, provides grants to promote health in underserved communities and to train health professionals and health profession students, improves and increases access to nutrition and wellness programs, improves access to and opportunity for physical activity for adults and children, improves access to nutritional information and healthy foods, realigns transportation policy to help promote healthy lifestyles, and expands research and assessment tools on obesity.
Despite the high hopes for the bill, Helen Durkin, executive vice president of public policy at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), says that it's unlikely the act will pass this year or even pass as one bill.
“It's really a placeholder bill for our nation's best policy ideas for moving the needle back on obesity,” Durkin says. “It's a great roadmap for any legislator interested in fighting obesity.”
Durkin also says that the bill will likely be broken into sections and inserted into other legislation moving through Congress.
“For example, if Congress is debating a tax bill, then there will be discussion about which tax-related provisions of the Healthy Choices Act should be included,” Durkin says. With Congressional elections in November, legislators will be too focused on their own campaigns to pass the act this year, she says, adding that it typically takes several years of persistent, targeted advocacy to pass legislation.
The creation of the National Physical Activity Plan, announced last month, could help move the Healthy Choices Act forward, she says.
“The National Physical Activity Plan gives us a framework and is the springboard from which we can make lasting societal changes that increase movement in America,” Durkin says.
The National Physical Activity Plan goes beyond telling people to exercise, says Russell Pate, Ph.D., chair of the National Physical Activity Plan and an exercise researcher at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina-Columbia.
“We are recommending policies, programs and initiatives that will change our communities in ways that enable all Americans to be physically active,” Pate says. “Successfully implementing the plan will depend, in large part, on the willingness of leaders at every level to enact the kinds of changes that will encourage and allow people to become more physically active. Currently, there are too many barriers to active lifestyles, and too many Americans are left behind.”
The plan includes a national program to educate people about how to exercise, funding for research about how to get people to exercise, inclusion of physical activity education in health care professional training, making physical activity a vital sign that doctors assess and discuss with patients, adding a field for tracking physical activity in electronic medical records, making physical inactivity a treatable and preventable health condition with payments to doctors for a physical inactivity diagnosis, and enacting federal legislation to support these strategies.
Also last month, the Childhood Obesity Task Force released its plan to combat childhood obesity. The plan not only includes 70 recommendations for public and private sector action, but it also includes concrete metrics and benchmarks to measure progress.
“The Task Force report is a clarion call for swift action,” according to a statement from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity. “It must not sit on a shelf. The momentum for reversing the childhood obesity epidemic is higher than ever, and many opportunities to implement the plan's recommendations are before us now. Collaboration among federal, state and local agencies; schools; the private sector; and many other community partners is critical to success.”