Thursday, May 10, 2012

The one way to make you slim, fit and healthy?

That your fattening lifestyle drives health insurance costs up is nothing but a fat lie. That much I have told you in the previous post. With Marlboro Man and Ronald McDonald doing better for your health insurer's balance sheet than Healthy Living, you might think that public health should look beyond economics as an argument for health.  In this post I will tell you why they shouldn't. 
 And why economics may well turn out to be the one and only way to getting you to exercise and reduce your weight. And, no, with economics I don't mean punishing you with penalty premiums on your health insurance and punitive taxes on your fast food. Let's leave such uninspired nonsense to the politicians. We can do better than that. Before I get to that point, let's pick up the thread from where we left it in the previous post. 
There I introduced you to the fact that the amazing arithmetic of sicker-equals-cheaper has been introduced by economists working in the employment of public health agencies. They are interested in the financial health of their government, not of a health insurance company. From that point of view, convincing smokers to quit and obese people to slim down doesn't seem to make much sense either. Here is why:
When smokers quit, their near-term health care costs may go down, but in the long run they will be offset by higher medical bills for causes unrelated to smoking but related to a longer life [1]. This longer life hurts the government twice. First, when smokers stop lighting up they also stop paying tobacco taxes to the government. Second, with longer lives come longer pension payments. In fact, if all smokers would quit today, we would have very unhappy finance ministers. Ours, here in Germany, would have his tax revenues reduced by € 14.5 Billion per annum. 
What goes for smoking goes for obesity, too. So, how sincere are our politicians with their professed concerns for our health? Is this a pretext for soon taxing your consumption of sugar and fast food? Well, they certainly have the backing of the World Health Organization. The WHO recommended the introduction of punitive taxes in their 2010 Global status report on noncommunicable diseases. What our politicians apparently don't have is the ingenuity to come up with a more innovative solution, for once. Which is why we have to find it. By looking a little closer at the economics of health.  
So, I'm asking you: aside from you personally, who benefits from your health so much, that promoting it makes economic sense? Your employer, for instance. Not only is a healthy employee less often absent from work, he is also more productive while he is at work. The costs related to work absence have been appropriately termed absenteeism, which makes you immediately understand what is meant with its twin, presenteeism. It describes the costs of being less productive while at work. 
As it turns out, presenteeism clobbers companies' profits much more than absenteeism. In fact, for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, the costs of reduced productivity, while at work, exceed those of absenteeism by a factor of 10 [2]. Admittedly, the calculation of presenteeism is not an exact science. But all available evidence points to a substantial return on employers' investments into preventing those chronic diseases, which produce chronically less productive workers. Across companies and nations, the overall cost:benefit ratio has been found to be in the region of 1:2.2 [3]. Which means, for every dollar spent on corporate health promotion, 2.2 dollars are gained. Not bad. But it could be a lot better if you really did prevent those chronic diseases.
Only, you don't. How do I know? By looking at the trends for the 7 metrics used by the American Heart Association (AHA) as the Strategic Impact Goals for improving cardiovascular health. By 2020 cardiovascular health shall be improved by 20%. That doesn't sound very ambitious. But in all likelihood it is way too ambitious. Here is why: Let's look at obesity, which the IOM has just branded a "catastrophic" problem in the U.S.
Instead of falling, the percentage of obese people has been on the rise, again, over the past 10 years, with now 34% of women and 32% of men being obese [4]. Physical activity levels have not improved significantly, neither did dietary habits. Blood sugar control has actually worsened, and blood pressure control has only slightly improved in men. Based on these data the improvements of cardiovascular health in 2020 will be around 6%, not 20%.
That's how I know that you aren't following your employer's corporate health program. Why would you when you don't follow public health's promotions and recommendations in the first place? Unless, of course, your employer makes you an offer you can't refuse. What would you do if your employer rewarded your participation in his health promotion program with hard cash, additional leave, or a tangible good you desire? What if he tied those benefits to your effort (e.g. your participation rate), or your measurable outcome (e.g. kgs of weight lost, or weight maintenance), or any mixture of effort and result? Would that entice you to pick up healthier habits?
As I have pointed out before, the argument that people who live healthy generate less health care costs than their unhealthily living peers is unsubstantiated. But that should not make us eliminate economics as a metric when it comes to promoting health. On the contrary. By making health an economic good we bring to the table what motivates people most: tangible rewards. The question is, would it get you to pick up exercise, if you didn't do it already, and would it get you to lose weight, if you needed to?
The reason why I'm asking you is, because as a public health scientist, I'm utterly disillusioned with the success rate of our preventive efforts. On one hand, we have this wonderfully simple and enormously effective preventive tool called exercise and weight loss. And on the other hand we have 4 out of 5 people not using this tool. On one hand, we have the new guidelines for the treatment of diabetes [5] and for the prevention of cardiovascular disease  [6], both of which have been released over the past few weeks. Both guidelines acknowledge lifestyle change as the first line of defense against those diseases. But on the other hand we have less than 2% of the population achieving the 7 simple health metrics of the AHA. Guidelines won't change that. So, how can we make the remaining 98% of the population achieve the 7 metrics? Obviously not with the same song and dance that didn't get the job done in the past.
Which is why we need to explore new ways. Taxing your consumption of the foods you enjoy isn't new. Making health an investment good, that's new. But without attracting those people who we haven't reached in the past, it won't work either. Now what do you think?
Will tangible rewards make employees exercise and lose weight?

Temple, N. (2011). Why prevention can increase health-care spending The European Journal of Public Health DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckr139
Collins, J., Baase, C., Sharda, C., Ozminkowski, R., Nicholson, S., Billotti, G., Turpin, R., Olson, M., & Berger, M. (2005). The Assessment of Chronic Health Conditions on Work Performance, Absence, and Total Economic Impact for Employers Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 47 (6), 547-557 DOI: 10.1097/01.jom.0000166864.58664.29
Huffman MD, Capewell S, Ning H, Shay CM, Ford ES, & Lloyd-Jones DM (2012). Cardiovascular Health Behavior and Health Factor Changes (1988-2008) and Projections to 2020: Results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). Circulation PMID: 22547667
Inzucchi SE, Bergenstal RM, Buse JB, Diamant M, Ferrannini E, Nauck M, Peters AL, Tsapas A, Wender R, & Matthews DR (2012). Management of hyperglycaemia in type 2 diabetes: a patient-centered approach. Position statement of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD). Diabetologia, 55 (6), 1577-96 PMID: 22526604
Authors/Task Force Members:, Perk J, De Backer G, Gohlke H, Graham I, Reiner Z, Verschuren M, Albus C, Benlian P, Boysen G, Cifkova R, Deaton C, Ebrahim S, Fisher M, Germano G, Hobbs R, Hoes A, Karadeniz S, Mezzani A, Prescott E, Ryden L, Scherer M, Syvänne M, Scholte Op Reimer WJ, Vrints C, Wood D, Zamorano JL, Zannad F, Other experts who contributed to parts of the guidelines:, Cooney MT, ESC Committee for Practice Guidelines (CPG):, Bax J, Baumgartner H, Ceconi C, Dean V, Deaton C, Fagard R, Funck-Brentano C, Hasdai D, Hoes A, Kirchhof P, Knuuti J, Kolh P, McDonagh T, Moulin C, Popescu BA, Reiner Z, Sechtem U, Sirnes PA, Tendera M, Torbicki A, Vahanian A, Windecker S, Document Reviewers:, Funck-Brentano C, Sirnes PA, Aboyans V, Ezquerra EA, Baigent C, Brotons C, Burell G, Ceriello A, De Sutter J, Deckers J, Del Prato S, Diener HC, Fitzsimons D, Fras Z, Hambrecht R, Jankowski P, Keil U, Kirby M, Larsen ML, Mancia G, Manolis AJ, McMurray J, Pajak A, Parkhomenko A, Rallidis L, Rigo F, Rocha E, Ruilope LM, van der Velde E, Vanuzzo D, Viigimaa M, Volpe M, Wiklund O, & Wolpert C (2012). European Guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention in clinical practice (version 2012): The Fifth Joint Task Force of the European Society of Cardiology and Other Societies on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Clinical Practice (constituted by re European heart journal PMID: 22555213 Print Friendly and PDFPrintPrint Friendly and PDFPDF


  1. I've recently witnessed firsthand how a major corporation attemps to get its employees to lose weight, as its just happened in my office. Great I can see whats motivating my company to get this done.

    We were asked (via numerous, non-stop, annoying email reminders) to answer some questions about our lifestyle, and then given an assessment.

    A large number of people were astonished by how 'overweight' they were rated. Many laughed at it, a few went on to consider exercising more, etc, after they finished laughing at their assessment...

    ...but thats about where it stopped. I think by and large people are too psychologically set in their ways to be swayed.

    I, on the other hand, gained significant weight for the first time in my life this past year (I'm 33...apparently my metabolism hit a brick wall). I was so motivated by how badly my favorite clothes were now fitting, that immediately took up exercise and a diet change, and have since lost all the weight.

    (pats self on back)

  2. Great, Pete! Congratulations on your weight loss and your determination. be happy that you hadn't kept that overweight for too long. The metabolic adaptations, which make weight loss so difficult for the overweight person, do not happen over night. So, probably you pulled the brakes before your metabolism changed for good. Now comes the hard part: keeping that weight off. if you ever notice weight creeping up on you again, contact me. We have a little tool with which you can train a 6th. sense for your daily calorie balance. You can try it out on facebook. Just call up adiphea and choose the app. You can use it foc for a month and see whether you like it. No string attached. Just bear with the design. I'm a scientist, not a designer. And so are the members of my team. But our group is working on this, too.

  3. Sounds good! I feel that as of the last few years, I've been having a hard time maintaining my blood sugar levels. Nothing too pales in comparison to what full blown hypoglycemics talk about...

    ...but nonetheless, i've felt that i'm always having to play catch-up, and eat to get my blood sugar back up, even when i'm not hungry.

    My simple remedy was to substitute dinner with a vegetable smoothie (i would just blend kale and some other veggies together) and go for a bike ride (only about 10 miles or so). Without the bike ride, the veggies would leave me feeling dizzy and nauseous within 30 minutes, but together with the exercise, i feel absolutely fine and rejuvenated.

    So, i get the benefits of exercise while also substituting a normal dinner with something healthier and more appropriate for late in the day.

    Great blog by the way.

  4. Hi Pete,
    Does that mean you are taking some drug to lower blood sugar, or you take insulin, and have a problem with your blood sugar going too low (hypoglycemic)? If so, I'm wondering why you feel dizzy after the veggie shake without exercise, and why you are feeling fine with the exercise. I'ld expect the veggie shake to increase your blood sugar and the exercise to moderate it again. if you would like to continue this correspondence via email, you'll find my email address on my website: or via my facebook account
    And thanks for the compliment!

  5. Rewards would have to be frequent-- not an extra vacation day every 6 months. And, I am a teacher: the fac lounge is awash in cupcakes pretty constantly. If the PTO would keep a fruitbowl instead, and coffee, that would be good. Culture change is needed, and that is hard. Then there are the vending machines, which contain not one single thing anyone should put in her mouth. Except water, for $1.25. Also, faculty is constantly being bugged to do this or that -- one more thing-- so really, no one is listening, and is just doing what we can't get away with not doing. Of course, low morale is more likely to reduce resistance to the call of the bad cupcakes...


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