It seems like everywhere we look there are discussions about the current healthcare crisis in the United States. The media typically tends to fault medical providers’ fees, insurer flaws, or even the aging population of our country. Rarely do we hear discussions considering the individual’s responsibility and contribution toward the current crisis our society is facing. If we change our perspective and take an introspective look, it becomes pretty clear that each of us has contributed to the crisis. The leading causes of death in the U.S. are cardiovascular (heart) disease, metabolic disease (diabetes), and cancer.
Unfortunately, there are two primary risk factors that are directly associated with these Big Three mortal diseases that the majority of our population is faced with: elevated Basal Metabolic Index (BMI) (meaning overweight or obese) and lack of physical activity. Currently, 69.2 percent of our population is overweight, while 35.6 percent of this overweight population is considered obese. That means that 70 percent of all Americans have personally contributed to the healthcare crisis. Of course other factors relate to this crisis, but it is time to pony up and accept that we have all contributed on some level. Only one in five (or 20.6 percent) of adults in the U.S. currently meet the minimum standard of physical activity for muscle strengthening and aerobic physical activity, both of which are directly associated with increased BMI and health-risk factors.
One study identifies that individuals who are obese or over weight (elevated BMI) and perform minimal physical activity have an increased mortality risk of 42 percent. Stated another way, they are 42 percent more likely to die. This can translate directly into an increased demand for medical care that trickles down to increase healthcare costs.
Taking an anthropological view, we can see that there have been some drastic changes to our society over the past few generations. Currently we are focused on a knowledge-based market, which includes occupations that are sedentary and include sitting for eight or more hours per day. Previous generations existed in more mechanical-based and labor-based markets where physical activity was part of everyday life. In addition, the quality and quantity of the foods we eat have drastically changed. Though medicine has made many advancements over the years, there is no denying that these abrupt changes in physical activity and diet have led to an increased risk of poor health related to heart disease and diabetes, including early death.
Despite all of these hurdles and the current poor health of our communities, the time has never been brighter for individuals to access facilities, resources, and support to directly impact their personal health. Healthcare providers, insurers, exercise specialists, schools, nonprofits, and federal and regional governments are investing in services and facilities to provide opportunities for individuals, families, and communities to improve their health. It is time for each of us to take personal responsibility for our health and overall wellness.
So, how do we assess our current health status?
A simple self-assessment or screening can be completed by two primary measurements: Basal Metabolic Index (BMI) and Level of Physical Activity. The BMI is assessed by measuring both your weight and height. Using a BMI calculator, you can determine where you stand in the ranking of underweight, normal, overweight, or obese. The BMI is a well-studied, evidence-based general assessment closely associated with increased disease risk for the Big Three—heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Another quick assessment is a self-evaluation of your physical activity (exercise, recreation, or work) over the course of a week. The minimum expected standard for meaningful health benefits is approximately 150 minutes of physical exercise per week. This can be performed in bouts as short as 10 minutes up to 50 minutes, totaling 150 minutes. Those with less than 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity have increased risk of elevated BMI and heart disease.
Mortality Risk Factors
Completing a physical fitness exam provides an overall baseline health assessment that can be used to identify areas of potential risk. Applying the results of the self-assessment clearly places individuals in classifications of higher or lower mortality or risk of death. For example, an obese person who does not meet the physical activity requirements has an increased mortality of 43.2 percent. That same person who adds in physical activity can reduce their risk factor to 32.9 percent. While persistent efforts to control diet, effectively manage weight, and increase physical activity will reduce their risk of death, a secondary benefit is a reduction in the risk of the Big Three to a whopping 23.2 percent. Likewise, note that those who have an average BMI but do not meet physical activity requirements have an elevated cardiovascular risk factor of 37.7 percent.
Often, awareness of these risk factors and the perception of climbing such mountains for improved health can be overwhelming and seem unachievable. This perception, combined with being part of a society with generally poor eating habits, lack of accessible exercise space, and even sensitivities (disease process, aging body, or joint issues) could easily leave some feeling helpless. Fortunately, the first steps for change are quite simple and can have a statistically significant impact on your body’s health and resistance to disease. For example, the minimum recommended physical activity requirement is 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. This can be performed as three 50-minute workouts or five 30-minute workouts per week. For those starting out or leading hectic lives with families and careers, that duration of time could feel impossible. Fortunately, there is one other option that will achieve the desired minutes as well as the same statistical effect on health. Three 10-minute bouts of moderate activity per day for 150 minutes per week can reduce the risk of cardiovascular mortality by approximately 10 percent, even for people with an elevated BMI and without weight loss.