Over half of all American adults are either overweight or obese, a startling figure that will increase if employers don’t offer comprehensive wellness programs to their employees and families, as well as partner with local communities to effect real change, a leading health advocate warned benefits professionals gathered at the Benefits Forum & Expo in Phoenix on Monday.

“I honestly believe that the obesity crisis is an amazing opportunity for our country,” said Dr. Gail Christopher, DN, vice president of program strategy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

Christopher quoted an old African proverb to benefits professionals: “To stumble is not to fall, but to move forward faster.”

“I believe we have stumbled our way to an opportunity to move forward faster in terms of the wellness of our nation,” she advocated.

Employers can do their part by furthering comprehensive wellness programs that can yield an investment as high as 6:1, according to a study by Leonard L. Berry of Texas A&M University.

Christopher encouraged HR managers to enthusiastically show the CFO and CEO how a wellness program will make the company better. Beyond leadership backing, wellness programs require a team of champions to make it thrive.

She suggested pulling from the myriad of data showcasing wellness success; specifically, how it can increase employee productivity and lower health care costs.

“If you keep your BMI low, not building too much excess adipose tissue, you will be less vulnerable to chronic illness in old age and your health care costs are going to be lower. You are going to use fewer benefits. That should sell,” she suggested when asked how to pitch a wellness program to executives.

Christopher, whose background is as a holistic health practitioner and nutritionist, explained that with unhealthy weight gain, the human body makes new tissue that effectively creates a new organ. This new body organ produces and houses hormones that are typically inflammatory molecules.

“The more adipose tissue that we deposit, the greater our risk for 37 different chronic conditions, everything from cardiovascular risks to erectile dysfunction,” detailed Christopher. “And Viagra is not a cure for obesity,” she joked.

Further, “there is an intimate relationship between this acceleration in obesity and stress,” she said. “Obesity itself is a stress. Our bodies are not designed to carry more weight than our frames can handle.”

Employers such as Google have introduced meditation programs to help employees alleviate stress.

“You have to mitigate chronic stress while you reduce the stress sores in life. Breathing is probably the most effective stress mitigation technique that [people] can use,” Christopher advised. Slow and deep breathing exercises can lower blood pressure. And so can having fun, she added, suggesting that laughter and games can help lower stress.

By eating in excess and consuming foods with poor nutritional value, “we have sent a message to our bodies that there’s too much stress, too much demand for energy production, too little bioactive content going in to meet those demands,” she added.

Bioactive foods – generally fruits and vegetables – produce more energy to support our active bodies. Christopher explained that these foods hydrate and propel our bodies, and that we need five servings every day.

“We talk a lot about calories in our country, but we need talk more about bioactivity of foods,” she advocated.

We know that obesity leads to lessened productivity, explained Christopher, but obesity can also cause cognitive impairment.

A recent study found that the areas of brain tissue that control stress response were shrinking in a group of people with slightly high or elevated blood sugar. The elevation of blood pressure, often linked with obesity, can cause actual diminishment and loss of brain tissue.

In order to stop trends like this, Christopher believes our nation needs support from non-profit, government, private sector and local community leaders.

“We still don’t have enough engagement of the private sector with the communities that you serve—not just the people that work for you, but the communities in which you operate,” stressed Christopher.  

She explained how one community group called Growing Power delivers fresh vegetables grown on only three acres of urban land to 10,000 people in Milwaukee, Wis. Many of these individuals, who include children at local schools, normally wouldn't have access to fresh produce.

The project creates healthy soil by recycling the city’s waste from restaurants and hospitals and using worms to detoxify it. In many urban areas, much of that soil is toxic with lead and other contaminants.

More than one-third of our nation’s children are overweight or obese, cited Christopher, “and that doesn't bode well for our country’s future.” 

“We have to make sure that all of our communities have access to healthy food,” she said, because right now, “our food system is broken.” Our country invests most of our resources in growing foods that are not fruits and vegetables, she noted.

The other piece of the wellness puzzle is movement. Exercise as a term can provoke anxiety, so Christopher prefers advocating general movement.

Sitting at a desk all day is equivalent to smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day in terms of the risk factor for chronic disease, she told the audience.

“I encourage each and every one of you to build movement into every hour of your day at some level,” she said.

At her office, they have stand-up meetings and focus on walking while talking. Christopher has even replaced her sit-down desk with one where she stands to work.

“Make sure the wellness program isn’t perceived as an add-on, but that there is an alignment, [which] could be productivity optimization alignment,” offered Christopher.

A successful program should have a wide scope, be relevant and of high quality.

“You can’t nickel and dime a wellness program. You have to decide that it’s worth the investment [with a possible] return of 6:1,” she added.

Strong metrics will ensure the program stays of the right track by monitoring results in depth. Christopher believes employers will realize lower health care costs, greater productivity, and higher morale. In all, programs foster a “more engaged culture and excitement in the workplace,” she said.

“I would challenge you to be engaged in building new models of wellness in your organizations that will make this obesity crisis something of the past. Make it obsolete by considering the fundamental relationships between excess adipose and stress, between your organizations and the communities in which you operate and, most importantly, your own relationship with your greatest gift in life: your body,” Christopher continued.

“We can move forward faster by creating a new relationship and a new appreciation for our bodies and as a result, bend the cost curve on obesity,” she stressed.

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