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Obesity Could be Industry’s Calling Card

Published April 6, 2011

BY Doug McClellan

James Moore sees it most starkly after the holidays, when parents bring the big-box bikes they bought for their children to his bike shop.

“It’s very startling, the number of parents who come in after Christmas,” said Moore, the owner of Moore’s Bike Shop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “Most of them went to a department store to buy an inexpensive 20-inch bike for their kids.”

They come in asking Moore’s staff to put heavy-duty training wheels on the bikes. Their kids are so fat they’ve flattened the original training wheels.

“We’re seeing 6-year-old kids who are 130 pounds, and we just can’t put training wheels on a bike that won’t collapse under their weight,” Moore said. “It’s a scary situation when you see 6 and 7-year-olds who weigh what I did when I was in high school.”

Staggering Statistics

Americans are fat. Bicycling can help them lose weight. No one would argue with either assertion. But the challenge for the industry is helping people put the two together.

One third of Americans today are obese, and more than two-thirds—68 percent—are overweight. This makes the United States one of the world’s fattest countries, according to World Health Organization. The problem has mushroomed in the past two decades, and isn’t going away:

• In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent, according to the Robert Wood Johnson foundation.
• By 2010, only one state—Colorado—had an obesity rate below 20 percent. More than one third of the residents of Mississippi, the fattest state, were obese.

(According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re overweight if your body mass index is at least 25, and obese if it’s at least 30. That means someone who is 5 feet 9 inches tall is considered overweight at 169 pounds and obese at 203 pounds.)

The numbers are no less frightening for children. Since 1970, the number of obese children ages 6-11 has quadrupled, while the number of obese adolescents has tripled, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

More than 18 percent of adolescents and nearly 20 percent of kids were obese in 2007 and 2008. Add in the kids who are “merely” overweight but not obese, and the percentage of chunky children grows to 35 percent.

Obesity and overweight have a plus-sized impact on our nation’s health care costs. The Society of Actuaries has estimated that overweight and obesity cost the United States and Canada a gut-busting $300 billion a year in additional medical costs and excess death and disability.

Obesity and overweight contribute to a number of unpleasant medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and strokes, the actuaries concluded.

“Overweight and obesity have shown to increase the rate of several common adverse medical conditions, resulting in this extraordinary economic cost to society,” said actuary Don Behan. “We can’t stand back and ignore the fact that overweight and obesity are drivers of cost increases and detrimental economic effects.”

Shrinking Class Sizes

There are a slew of reasons why American kids are fatter, ranging from the birth of the Game Boy to the supersize-me culture of fast food.

But a decline in cycling has certainly played its part. In 1969, nearly half of all kids ages 5 to 15 walked or biked to school, according to the National Household Travel Survey. By 2009, the number had fallen to 13 percent.

“The corresponding increase in childhood obesity parallels the decline in walking or bicycling to school,” said Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

Safe Routes is one of the programs that receives federal funding and promotes cycling at least in part as a solution to childhood obesity. But it is struggling to stay ahead in these challenging economic times.

Funding for Safe Routes to School helps underwrite infrastructure and educational programs for students in elementary and middle schools.

“The fact that childhood obesity has more than tripled over the last 30 years is a huge selling card for bicycling and Safe Routes to School,” Hubsmith said.

While Safe Routes programs address only schools, infrastructure improvements can benefit an entire community, supporters say.

“If a community is walkable and bikable for an 8-year-old, it’s going to be walkable and bikable for everybody,” said Jill Chamberlain with the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. “Targeting the kids is a great way to go, not to mention the bonus of a lifelong behavior.”

Congress has authorized $183 million a year in funding for Safe Routes as part of the national highway and transportation bill. Renewal of the five-year measure is one of many spending bills that have been stalled in Congress—especially because it represents such a big chunk of money.

The bleak financial mood in Congress has affected Safe Routes as it has so many other federally funded programs.

Last year, Hubsmith said, a bipartisan coalition in Washington, D.C., had proposed tripling funding for Safe Routes to $600 million a year.

Now, she said, in the new fiscally conservative Congress, Safe Routes is hoping mostly to avoid getting cut.

Supporters in the House are expected to introduce stand-alone legislation that would continue funding for Safe Routes at its current annual level of $183 million, Hubsmith said.

The House bill will seek some minor changes, such as expanding Safe Routes to some high schools (it now stops at 8th grade) and increasing research on the program’s effectiveness.

In the Senate, Hubsmith said, Safe Routes may ask for $250 million. She said supporters are seeking “a bill that’s slightly higher than the House bill, but lower than $600 million, because you want to get a lot of co-sponsors in the Senate.”

Supporting Everyday Cycling

Safe Routes and other cycling initiatives have garnered support from a number of health advocacy organizations.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, for example, last month announced it would work to publicize the Safe Routes program throughout the state.

As a health insurer, Blue Cross has a vested interested in combating obesity, said Dr. Marc Manley, vice president and chief prevention officer. A Blue Cross Blue Shield study estimated that obesity would cost Minnesotans an extra $3 billion by the end of the decade if the growth rate continues unchecked.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on trying to build physical activity for people’s everyday lives. So we’ve been less about having people ride 100-mile bike rides,” Manley said. “It’s more about how we get more normal people, regular people, out doing their commuting or running their errands or getting their kids to school on bikes.”

While the amount it’s spending on Safe Routes is relatively small, Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota is a significant underwriter of Nice Ride Minnesota, the bike share program that launched last year in Minneapolis.

Cycling, Manley said, “has so many advantages. It’s smart from a health point of view, it’s smart from an environmental point of view. It just has a lot of things going for it.”

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