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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 10/21/2011

Could trimming the fat get the U.S. back on track?


The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing to address childhood obesity in the United States with the main witness being fitness advocate Richard Simmons. (Melina Mara/TWP)

It’s not just the U.S. economy that’s sick and overweight, apparently it’s the workers, too. According to the latest survey on the U.S. workplace by Gallup, roughly 86% of full-time workers are overweight, obese or suffering from at least one chronic health problem. Even before the recession, business gurus talked about “lean” operations, “trimming the fat,” and creating the type of “nimble” corporations capable of taking on their overseas competitors. What if this was more than just clever wordplay? Can we actually jump-start the U.S. economy by asking our nation’s workers to slim down?

Currently, if companies pay attention to their workers’ health, they do so in large part to mitigate their bottom-line by way of health-care costs. They might hand back rebates if workers go to the gym a certain number of times per quarter — but they do not actually expect that physically fit workers will be better able to perform on the job. The Gallup numbers, however, suggest that there might be more to having a workforce of physically fit employees than we originally thought. Even by modest calculations, obesity is responsible for over $153 billion per year in lost productivity.

In other words, being fit might be more than a lifestyle choice — it might be a matter of national competitiveness. What’s interesting is to review the economic literature on the link between obesity and poverty, or to compare a chart of the world’s most obese nations side-by-side with a chart of the world's most economically competitive nations. There is already a significant body of evidence to suggest a causal link between obesity and poverty — is there also a causal link between obesity and economic competitiveness?

Within the U.S., for example, there is a strong correlation between the states with high rates of obesity and low economic growth. The classic example is Mississippi, which has the highest obesity rate and the highest poverty rate in the country. On a global scale, the World Economic Forum reports that the world's most competitive nations are Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore, the U.S. and Germany. With the exception of the U.S., all of these nations are not exactly known as being friendly to obesity. Check out recent data from the World Health Organization on global obesity (divided by men and women) — while Switzerland and Sweden fall slightly above average, they are still well below the United States when it comes to obesity. Meanwhile, Singapore, is among the nations with the lowest prevalence of obesity.

Some might argue that it is too simplistic to suggest that a healthier workforce would naturally lead to superior economic results. Certainly, a “physically fit workforce” is not a phrase used in the president and lawmakers’ speeches about jobs or Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s briefings on central bank policy. Rather, the issue has been addressed softly, such as with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Yet, there is certainly a strong body of evidence to suggest that high rates of obesity are inversely correlated to economic success.

Could a bag-of-chips-a-day routine be the difference between a double-dip recession and a slow-but-steady recovery? At a time when the U.S. economy is looking a bit flabby and the unemployment rate still hovers around the ungainly 9-percent mark, it might just be worth it to create a workout routine or be more diligent about an existing one.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 10/21/2011

 
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