Marian Benjamin

As I was reviewing James S. Williams’ article on sleep apnea and obesity (Losing Weight Over Weight), I was struck by the fact that rates of overweight and obesity have risen more than 30% since the 1976-1980 NHANES II survey. In fact, the greatest increase has been seen in the obese group (BMI >30). Here are some more statistics: In 1990, among states participating in the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 10 states had a prevalence of obesity less than 10%, and no states had prevalence equal to or greater than 15%; in 1998 no state had prevalence less than 10%, seven states had a prevalence of obesity between 20% and 24%, and no state had prevalence equal to or greater than 25%; in 2006, four states had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%, 22 states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%—two states had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%. Wow!

On a recent, fairly long layover at an airport, I decided to test these results by performing my own “study.” (Clearly, I had too much time on my hands.) Not only did I see a huge number of overweight adults, but I also saw that the children accompanying these adults were nearly all overweight. I’m not the only one to have noticed that: The Institute of Medicine (IoM) reports that over the past 3 decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children and adolescents and has tripled for children age 6 to 11.

The IoM reports that genetics does play a part in obesity, but goes on to say that while the prevalence of obesity has approximately doubled in the last 20 years, our genetic makeup has not changed.

Then what happened? Well, at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I blame modern society: Our cities and towns are not designed to encourage walking; no longer are children required to participate in physical education at their schools—in fact, many schools do not even offer “gym” (when I was in high school, we were required to participate in 1 hour of gym EVERY DAY for 4 years—of course, I hated it and the stupid green gym uniforms we had to wear); kids are no longer walking or biking to school—thanks to the increased danger from people who want to hurt their children, parents are afraid to let their children out of their sights; and the popular whipping boys, TV and computer games, are keeping our children sedentary (and probably snacking at the same time).

Editor’s Note
You can see all of the CDC’s obesity stats at

The consequences of childhood obesity are serious. Type 2 diabetes is becoming a disease of children—as many as 45% of all new pediatric cases of diabetes are type 2, compared to less than 4% pre 1990. This could reduce overall adult life expectancy, reports the IoM, because it increases lifetime risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions, “thereby potentially reversing the improved life expectancy trend achieved with the reduction of infectious diseases over the past century.”

“All very troubling,” you might be saying, “but what does it have to do with me?” Here’s another statistic for you: Obesity costs US companies as much as $45 billion a year in medical expenditures and work loss. It is associated with a 36% increase in spending on health care services—more than smoking or drinking. More than 40% of US companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs, and 24% plan to do so. The estimate is as much as a $5 return on investment for every $1 invested. Is obesity reduction part of your facility’s wellness program? If not, this might be a good time to throw your weight around and start advocating for just such an initiative.

Marian Benjamin