Public policies can help fight obesity

159171619I’ve always thought that maintaining a healthy weight is a personal responsibility, but I hear some people talk about what the public should do about the issue. How can that make a difference? 

You might be surprised. Researchers have learned that people’s health behaviors are often influenced at multiple levels, so it makes sense to use multiple strategies to combat the nation’s weight problem.

The idea is this: It is not enough for people to know they should eat nutritious foods or become more physically active if the social or physical environment that surrounds them doesn’t support that knowledge. For example, requiring school lunches to include more fruits and vegetables is the type of public policy that is aimed at improving the environment to help kids make healthier choices.

It’s an important concern. Today, about one-third of the U.S. population is classified as obese and another one-third is overweight. That has implications not only for an individual’s health and well-being, but for public health costs due to the related increased risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers resources on what local governments, schools, communities and other groups can do to help prevent obesity on its website at http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/resources/recommendations.html. Ideas of what can be done to encourage more physical activity, for example, include:

  • Community-wide campaigns encouraging physical activity. Research indicates such campaigns result in an average of about a 4 percent increase in the percentage of people engaging in physical activity. Even more people increase the amount of physical activity they already do during such campaigns.
  • Point-of-decision prompts to use the stairs, including motivational signs and making physical improvements to stairwells to make the experience more pleasant. Such efforts result in an average increase of 50 percent more people choosing the stairs over the elevator.
  • Creating or enhancing access to places for physical activity. It shouldn’t be surprising that people who live in neighborhoods without sidewalks or walking paths, bike paths, or easy access to a fitness center spend less time in physical activity. While community-wide solutions like these can be challenging to implement, they can provide long-lasting benefits once in place.