Trucks at Work

The fat report … and what it means for trucking

You’ve probably seen, heard, or actually perused some of the obesity report recently published by two public interest groups, Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Now, the whole subject of obesity gets a lot of folks riled up and rightly so because – let’s face it – all sorts of strange government policy efforts are being ginned up in the name of public health, such as New York City’s initiative to ban oversized servings of sugary drinks.

Yet the scale of America’s obesity problem is shocking if even some of the findings within this recent report – entitled F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2012 – are close to correct.

Take for example some of these frightening stats:

  • If obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, by 2030, 13 states could have adult obesity rates above 60%, 39 states could have rates above 50%, and all 50 states could have rates above 44%.  
  • By 2030, Mississippi could have the highest obesity rate at 66.7%, and Colorado could have the lowest rate for any state at 44.8%. Currently, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates in 2011 ranged from a high of 34.9% in Mississippi to a low of 20.7% in Colorado. 
  • If states’ obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, the number of new cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, hypertension and arthritis could increase 10 times between 2010 and 2020—and double again by 2030.  
  • Obesity could contribute to more than 6 million cases of type 2 diabetes, 5 million cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and more than 400,000 cases of cancer in the next two decades. 
  • Currently, more than 25 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, 27 million have chronic heart disease, 68 million have hypertension and 50 million have arthritis.  In addition, 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year, while approximately one in three deaths from cancer annually (some 190,650) are tied to obesity, poor nutrition or physical inactivity - or some combination of the three.

These scary numbers offer grim portents for the trucking industry because – let’s face this as well – piloting a big rig is one requiring long hours (11 hours per day according to the current rules) engaged in a largely sedentary occupation.

Indeed, in a recent post in this space I noted that the physical fitness and overall health of the aging truck driver population in the U.S. continues to concern industry experts simply because fitness relates strongly to job performance; something Rebecca Brewster, president & CEO of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) touched on in an interview with me not long ago.

“Certainly, the more physically fit and healthy drivers are, the more alert and less fatigued they are,” she explained. “Being physically fit also makes them less susceptible to injury as an increased fitness level gives them more body strength and flexibility – critical aspects when loading and unloading trailers, for example.”

Yet the overall prognosis for truck drivers isn’t good. Brewster noted a couple of years ago that research indicated some 55% of truck drivers are overweight and more than 50% smoke, compared to a national overall average of 20.9% and 25%, respectively. What those numbers are now I don't know, but one would hope they'd be better, not worse.

Now, however, with obesity levels projected to rise dramatically among the general population over the next 18 years, there may certainly be further impact upon the health and wellness of truck drivers – if, of course, nothing is done to address the problem.

Don’t forget this salient fact, either: there are big dollars at stake here in terms of how obesity affects health care costs. And one of the things being touted in one of several driver recruitment and retention studies is that providing health care coverage is a critical element in reducing turnover.

Look at some of the cost figures the researchers with TFAH and RWJF calculated:

  • By 2030, medical costs associated with treating preventable obesity-related diseases are estimated to increase by $48 billion to $66 billion per year in the U.S., and the loss in economic productivity could be between $390 billion and $580 billion annually by 2030.
  • Although the medical cost of adult obesity in the United States is difficult to calculate, current estimates range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. 
  • Over the next 20 years, nine states also could see their obesity-related health care costs climb by more than 20%, with New Jersey on course to see the biggest increase at 34.5%. Some 16 states and Washington, D.C., could see increases between 15% and 20%.
  • However, if states could reduce the average body mass index (BMI) of residents by just 5% by 2030, every state could help thousands or millions of people avoid obesity-related diseases, while saving billions of dollars in health care costs. For a six-foot-tall person weighing 200 pounds, a 5% reduction in BMI would be the equivalent of losing roughly 10 pounds.
  • That means nearly every state could save between 6.5% and 7.9% in health care costs. This could equate to savings ranging from $81.7 billion in California to $1.1 billion in Wyoming. Florida, the only state that would save less than 6.5% in health care costs, could save 2.1% or $34 billion.

“We know a lot more about how to prevent obesity than we did 10 years ago,” noted Jeff Levi, executive director of TFAH.  “This report outlines how policies like increasing physical activity time in schools and making fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable can help make healthier choices easier. Small changes can add up to a big difference.”

I’m not sure how “small” such changes are to the average person, but creating incentives to get – and stay – healthy, all while performing one’s job with a high degree of productivity, is no mean feat. It’ll be interesting to see if the corner office starts encouraging – and perhaps offering bonuses for – exercise time, achieving health goals, and the like.

In trucking’s case, though, such efforts may offer a way to save a lot of money, too, while increasing highway safety simultaneously. 

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