Employers that develop a culture of health are able to bend the cost curve, but one potentially serious impediment is an alarming national obesity epidemic that has triggered multiple co-morbidity factors that run up expenses.

“The cost is so pervasive and has an impact on many different levels,” says Gail Christopher, Ph.D., a nationally recognized leader in health policy. She will address this topic in a keynote presentation at the EBN-produced 25th annual Benefits Forum & Expo Sept. 9-11 in Phoenix, Ariz., “Bending the Obesity Cost Curve.”

Two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are considered overweight or obese in the U.S. An obese person costs $1,429 a year, according to a National Institutes of Health estimate in 2011 totaling about $80 billion. That’s even more than smokers who develop cancer, as well as respiratory, lung and heart diseases.

How is that possible? “When you get into the obesity realm,” Christopher explains, “you get into so many structural issues around hip and knee replacements, and so forth. It’s just a wider net in terms of the debilitating impact.”

What will motivate employers to declare war on obesity is the potential to realize substantial health care cost savings, she says. While Christopher notes that it’s not as easy to establish a specific cause-effect correlation for obesity as gold-standard, double-blind studies involving other areas, it’s still possible to track outcomes and draw conclusions.

Another tack is to view this epidemic’s effect on employee performance and cognitive indicators that can lead to a higher state of well-being. “It’s not so much obesity reduction as it is fitness creation and focusing on well-being,” she says. “The healthier your employee, the better your employee performs.”

Christopher is vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, whose national mission is to improve the lives of vulnerable children. She’s also a doctor of naprapathy, author or co-author of three books and a column for The Federal Times.

She believes the nation’s obesity epidemic will continue to burden employers with a complex array of chronic conditions unless steps can be taken to reverse this disturbing trend across all demographic segments of the workforce.

Christopher will provide several examples of both private and public-sector employers that have been able to alter employee behaviors to improve health outcomes through worksite wellness programs. She says the key is when they embrace healthy lifestyles.

To what extent can overweight HR professionals heighten the value of this message by actively joining any weight-loss and physical-fitness initiatives in their own company?

“They can add much more credibility by walking the talk or being the embodiment of this commitment to wellness,” according to Christopher.

For more information, visit www.benefits-forum.com.

Bruce Shutan, a former EBN managing editor, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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