Leading experts convened recently in Washington for the first conference on obesity and public policy. The statistics they reported were alarming. The solutions they proposed controversial.
Of the 97 million overweight Americans, approximately 40 percent are obese. Treatment for the health problems associated with obesity cost an estimated $100 billion annually.
When human life is added to the calculation, the price of obesity becomes much, much higher. Researchers contend that obesity contributes to 300,000 deaths per year.
Arguing that the U.S. government has ignored the seriousness of obesity, conference attendees offered their own opinions on how to reduce the number of overweight Americans. Some solutions were conservative (more money for obesity research). Others were radical (making school days longer so kids could squeeze in exercise; increasing taxes for fatty foods).
The attendees also debated the origins of obesity. They noted that genetics alone aren't to blame. Genes evolve too slowly to account for the rapid rise in the overweight population. So while genetics may play a part, inactivity and diet also contribute significantly to the girth of our nation.
No amazing discovery there. The surgeon general's office already addressed the health risks of inactivity - back in 1996. Still, the fact that top researchers have made a concerted effort to draw attention to the dangers of obesity bodes well for our industry. It lends credibility to the cause of championing active, healthier lifestyles. Our cause.
The burden of marketing, however, still rests on us. The public may read about the research, hear the expert opinions, and infer that a gym membership would improve their health, but we can't expect scientists to drive the deconditioned into health clubs. It's enough that they conduct research that backs up our product: exercise.
We must use the research wherever possible. We must remind prospects that obesity is a killer, which can be stopped with a sensible diet and exercise - not because we say so, but because researchers' findings say so. Most importantly, we must make facilities comfortable for the overweight, many of whom are first-time exercisers.
The conference on obesity and public policy is going to be an annual event. Next year, I hope the researchers report a decline in obesity. And I hope that they cite our industry as a major factor for the slimmer numbers.