Written by Frank Tucker

Obesity. It affects more than one-third of the US population and costs more than $147 billion in medical costs per year. An estimated 365 thousand deaths per year are attributed to obesity related causes in the US. In addition, obesity can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and can have adverse effects on health, reduce life expectancy and reduce the over quality of life. Yet, it is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide.

There are many contributing factors to obesity that are not self-inflicted, which include things like insomnia, pollutants, medications, and certain medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism that can sometimes go undiagnosed. In fact, recently I had a patient that came in for a completely unrelated problem. The patient did not express any suggestive symptoms of a thyroid disorder, but in taking a look at the whole patient, I noticed that the patient exhibited a “flattened” affect, which is a noted lack of emotional responsiveness. This prompted me to ask some more probing questions that in the end revealed a change over the past few years, including weight gain, weakness, and lack of energy, which the patient had simply attributed to “getting older.” What I discovered was that the patient had hypothyroidism, for which we began treatment. When I followed up with the patient later, he told me how thankful he was for the quality of life the treatment had brought. His marriage was happier, he had the energy and drive to play more with his children, he had lost weight, but most importantly he was happy. Although there are certainly medical, genetic, and psychiatric causes of obesity, the vast majority is caused by a lifestyle of greater food intake with minimal energy expenditure.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, I’m a practicing occupational health and preventive medicine physician assistant, and I recently retired after 20 years of service in the Army. Not long ago, I had a visit with my primary health care provider, who was astounded by my significant weight gain, which has occurred in a short period of time. I shared with her that this was self-inflicted. Simply put, I ate the same way I have always had, but my exercise routine had significantly dropped. Part of it was due to injuries to my knees and shoulders, sustained while doing what Soldiers do, training hard, but the other aspect was my recent change in lifestyle, where the compelling need to be fit was no longer mandatory. After a battery of tests, my primary health care provider came to the same conclusion I already had; simply put, I am obese and need to change my lifestyle.

Although our company is filled with active clinicians and public health practitioners, we as a company have fallen victim to obesity too. The entire office has decided to organize a “biggest loser” competition. Before anyone begins a diet and exercise program, talking to a doctor is highly recommended. Fortunately, for us, we have one on staff. He has designed our challenge to incentivize healthy lifestyle changes. Our first weigh in checked in at over 1993 lbs with a body mass index (BMI) that averaged over 25. What is unique about this corporate wellness approach to combat obesity is the social aspect. We are all in it to “win it” and make a commitment. The encouragement comes from not only those of us who are overweight, but also those of us who are in shape. What better place to get that encouragement than from the people with whom you spend five days a week, eight hours a day? Now, when I walk into the office kitchen, I see healthy snacks like nuts and dried fruit instead of potato chips. The social aspect of everyone in the office energized to help each other makes a clear and tangible difference.

Though we may not all reach our personal goals, all of us will realize the benefits of even a few pounds lost and the pride that comes with that success. We will quickly realize that we don’t have to make drastic changes; however, we do have to make a commitment to lasting, positive changes. Each small positive change accumulates, until the long-term outcome results in the healthier lifestyle that inspired this challenge.