Despite plenty of discussion, debate, and growing awareness, theU.S. continues to trail other developed countries when it comes toboth the cost and quality of health care.

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From the obesity epidemic to regulationto increased transparency, the causes — and potential solutions —will continue to shape our national consciousness until we figureout a better way.

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The high costs of obesity

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Fast-food meals aren't the only things being supersized thesedays. As employees continue to grow larger, so do the expenses oftheir employers. Obesity costs businesses more than $73 billionannually in higher health care costs and reduced productivity,according to numerous studies. Obesity is defined as a body massindex (BMI) of 30 or higher, says Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D.,associate professor at Duke-National University of Singapore.

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“Employers need to create a culture of wellness within theworksite, such that being healthy is the default,” he says. By hisdefinition, one in three Americans is obese, with about another 40percent overweight. This excess weight significantly increases therisk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain kinds ofcancer.

  • How did researchers arrive at the $73 billion figure?

  • Obese workers are absent an average of one more week each yearthan employees of normal weight.

  • Obese employees spend 77 percent more on necessary medicationsthan non-obese people.

  • Medical expenses are 42 percent higher for an obese person thanfor a normal-weight person.

The average annual medical costs of an obese person are $1,400(or 42 percent) higher than for someone whose BMI is in the normalrange.

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Obesity-related costs aregreater than those attributed to smoking, drinking, and poverty,according to several studies.

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Employers increasingly find themselves squeezed in a visebetween reduced productivity and increasing health care expenses,which might give them added incentive to introduce a results-basedwellness program.

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“We recognize the importance of practicing healthy habits in allareas of life — from the home to the workplace,” said FrancescaDea, executive director of The Obesity Society in Silver Spring,Maryland. “Practicing healthy habits throughout the day, likemonitoring overall caloric intake and increasing physical activity,can improve and sustain health and weight. We're working to createa company culture that encourages employees to take steps to stayactive and well.”

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Beating the bulge

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Cutting the fat is a no-brainer. However, research shows thatit's more successful to focus on overall wellness than simplydropping the pounds. “Focus less on weight and more on behaviorsthat everyone in the worksite can engage in,” Finkelstein said.

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Likewise, take a look at the potential savings from employeewellness instead of the costs of implementing a program. The returnon investment is impressive: Medical costs fell by $3.27 for everydollar spent on wellness programs, while absenteeism costs fell by$2.73 for every dollar spent, according to a study by the Centersfor Disease Control and Prevention.

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The Obesity Society puts its money where its mouth is. It triesout programs with its own employees that can be rolled out to otherbusinesses. Their recommendations include:

  • Structuring programs to reward employees for engaging in healthyhabits;

  • Avoiding the use of BMI as a basis for financial penalties orincentives;

  • Ensuring that incentive programs are matched with health plansthat cover evidence-based obesity treatment programs andmedications; and

  • Creating a supportive workplace environment that providesopportunities for healthy behaviors, such as healthy food optionsin the cafeteria and vending machines.

“Tackling obesity in the workplace requires a holistic approachwith a focus on supporting employees in their health journey,” saysmember Ted Kyle of ConscienHealth in Pittsburgh. “Getting it rightmeans workplaces that are encouraging healthy activities, employeecafeterias with healthy options, leaders who model healthy behaviorand health plans that cover a wide range of treatments for obesityand overweight.”

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Robert Kushner, M.D., director of Northwestern's ComprehensiveCenter on Obesity, agrees. “Tackling obesity in the workplacerequires a holistic approach,” he says. “Doing it right includesoffering well-designed workplaces that encourage activity,cafeterias that focus on healthy eating; leaders who model healthybehavior; and health plans covering a wide range oftreatments.”

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The research and numbers on obesity point to an undeniableconclusion: Cutting the fat out will help keep budgets and healthcare costs lean.

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Obesity by the numbers

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It may help for employers to step on the scale and weigh thehigh cost of obesity versus that ofimplementing a wellness program. The financial website The MotleyFool points to 10 critical numbers that should catch the attentionof every CFO and HR director:

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