IHRSA speakers address need for a healthier nation, national agenda

The continued national agenda for a healthier nation -- and the role that the fitness and club industries can play in promotion -- was the meat of quite a few speeches, panels and lectures during the annual IHRSA show March 28-31.

The continued national agenda for a healthier nation — and the role that the fitness and club industries can play in promotion — was the meat of quite a few speeches, panels and lectures during the annual IHRSA show March 28-31.

SNEWS® attended two key talks related to that theme since it is an important one to the future of the fitness industry and the more the industry can get behind the theme to embrace it, promote it and support it, the more the industry can also benefit.

Where do we go from here to create a healthy nation?
Richard Carmona, 17th U.S. Surgeon General of the United States

As one of the country’s past surgeon generals, Carmona has clout. He also has a background and a message that is impressive.

Carmona was raised in Harlem, N.Y., in a large and very poor family. He dropped out of high school, went into the army and decided to get his high school equivalency when he returned. He went on from there to a community college, then to the University of California, San Francisco, as well as to get a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health. He is now the vice chairman of Canyon Ranch and the CEO of Canyon Ranch Health. He told the story of his rise from Harlem and being homeless at 6 years old, to being one of the highest-placed health influencers in the country with humor and ease, using it to pave the way to a theme of a talk that stressed how anybody can have influence if they care to take the opportunity.

“Think globally,” he said. “When all is said and done, the power is in each of you and every one of you.”

He talked about how the United States must become a nation that embraces prevention. Sixteen percent of the gross national product goes to the cost of disease, up from 14 percent in 2002. During his tenure, he tried to focus on prevention partly because of his background as well as the growing frequency of childhood obesity and other diseases that normally don’t happen until adulthood. He asked where our active leadership would come from — including soldiers, fire-fighting personnel and others — if our nation is this fat and inactive. (Click here to see a SNEWS® Did You Hear this week, dated April 13, 2007, about the military battling out-of-shape recruits.)

“This could be the first generation that lives shorter lives than its parents” if the current trend in obesity and disease continues, he said. Cigarettes still contribute to this trend, with Carmona calling them “the only legally obtainable product in the United States that if you use it as directed can kill you.”

Although as surgeon general, he was expected to be and was non-partisan, he told the crowd at IHRSA, “If you band together, you can move the Hill,” meaning that advocacy will help and should be a part of the industry’s agenda.

“The bottom line is, folks, if you don’t do it, nobody else will. The greatest change I saw … is not because we passed some legislation,” he said. “It was because you took action in your community.”

Building health promotion into the national agenda
Michael O’Donnell, editor in chief of the American Journal of Health Promotion

We’ve all seen the stats — obesity is up, diabetes is up, activity is down. But every time we see them, we still stare, somewhat mesmerized by how shocking it is. O’Donnell presented these and more before launching into more about what we can do with the same theme — get involved and just do something.

Why do people die early? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 30 percent die from genetic reasons, 40 percent from behavioral reasons, 15 percent from social reasons, 10 percent from lack of access to medical care, and 5 percent from environmental reasons.

He too stressed that it’s not just formal exercise — although it shouldn’t be ignored — but also about generally being active in daily life. On and on went the stats about death, disease and handicap from being overweight and inactive.

“This data is what tells us we’re doing the right thing,” O’Donnell then added, “but it doesn’t motivate people.”

Then came a study about how the cases of erectile dysfunction go down when someone becomes more active and loses weight. Not something normally seen in a presentation at a fitness show, indeed. But O’Donnell pointed out that if the threat of death and disease doesn’t get someone, “this could reach the average person.”

It’s the cost of medical care — i.e. the impact on the pocketbook — that can really hit home for everybody, though. Then came the slides showing that the older you were and the more risk factors you had, the more expensive you were to yourself and your employer. Someone who is 35-44, in fact with five or more risk factors actually has the same medical costs as someone who is older than 65 with just two risk factors.

To get all companies to start pushing more workplace wellness, the topic needs to become part of the national agenda, he said, since small companies can’t do it on their own, can’t afford it or don’t get it.

“We don’t have a lack of resources,” he said. “We have a lack of demand.”

Budgets in other national areas continue to go up, but the budget allocated for wellness, health and fitness do not. On his agenda are the same legislative issues that other organizations have, including PHIT, WHIP and a program called FIRST, which was just introduced in March and would require health promotion research through the NIH.

He is also chair of a non-profit behind advocacy called Health Promotion Advocates ( The group is open for members and can provide information to help someone engage a company in wellness activities. The PowerPoint to go with this presentation (the slides with all the stats) is available for download by clicking on “Tools and Resources,” where there are also additional reports and presentations for anyone needing research or backup material.

SNEWS® View: We’d love to see all sides in the small yet still divided fitness industry in some way come together in advocacy and promotion efforts — that means clubs, dealers, retailers and both commercial and retail suppliers. We believe it is possible to work together, finding a common agenda, while allowing each group to promote messages on its own for its own individual interests. Since power comes in numbers, wouldn’t it be wise to unite than to remain divided and, perhaps, conquered?