Ending childhood obesity could save billions on healthcare. Why aren't we doing it?

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Ending childhood obesity could save billions on healthcare. Why aren't we doing it?

College tuition. Rent. Healthcare costs.

If you guessed "things that are too damn high," pat yourself on the back. The staggering rise in cost of each has curbed social mobility for families and individuals simply trying to cover basic costs. Each has its own causes and potential solutions, and none are necessarily simple.

But when it comes to healthcare costs, there is one easy way to help: get kids outside.

A recent study headed by the Global Obesity Prevention Center showed that we could save $120 billion a year in healthcare costs just by getting kids to exercise more. Turns out that physical activity starts to decrease at just seven years old, and less than a third of kids get 25 minutes of physical activity three times a week. (Cue rant about "recess back in my day.")

For all U.S. children ages 8-11, the result is an annual estimated "net present value of $1.1 trillion in direct medical costs and $1.7 trillion in lost productivity over the course of their lifetimes." If 50% of children exercised, "the number of obese and overweight youth would decrease by 4.18 percent, averting $8.1 billion in direct medical costs and $13.8 billion in lost productivity." And if 75% exercised? A $16.6 billion decrease in direct medical costs and $23.6 billion decrease in lost productivity.

If every child exercised an hour a day, we’d get to a combined total savings of $120 billion a year.

Those numbers are huge. How can this be? Because physical activity helps avert childhood obesity, which one in three children and teens suffer from. Down the road, more than two in three adults end up overweight or obese. This results in higher cases of diabetes, increased risk of heart attack and heart disease, and a bevy of other health concerns.

Ultimately, these conditions correlate directly to higher healthcare costs. Obese adults spend 42% more on healthcare costs than healthy adults and are more likely to be on prescription drugs. Costs for obese patients are "41 percent higher for severely obese patients...than for healthy-weight patients" when they go to the emergency room for chest pains. These higher costs mean that families have to make a choice: pay those healthcare bills, or spend more on health insurance to try to cover those costs. This is an important choice to make, since medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies.

Other insurance types aren’t immune from the effects of obesity, either. Life insurance applicants who have suffered from heart attacks or have diabetes or high cholesterol pay more than healthy applicants.

Unfortunately, while the solution is simple, the execution is anything but. Creating healthier kids means overhauling what they eat, how much they exercise, and providing access to exercise facilities (or the outdoors).

Michelle Obama has been a leading champion of anti-obesity in recent years. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was one of her successes, setting guidelines for food provided in school lunches and providing funding to meet those new guidelines. New standards included things like offering more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Unfortunately, current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has decided to roll back some of these provisions. It’s allegedly been a financial burden on school districts; the new restrictive guidelines require schools to provide more expensive food, and at the same time revenue has been decreasing as children decide they don’t like the new food and stop participating in school lunches. Those who do get the lunches are simply throwing the food out.

There are plenty of arguments against this – namely that we should work to make the program more affordable, and not submit to the whims of children who don’t like to eat vegetables – but healthier lunches were just one of the initiatives taken by Mrs. Obama. Let’s Move! was an entire program designed to teach kids healthy lifestyles with better dietary habits and, yes, getting them to be more active.

Mrs. Obama clearly isn’t out of the spotlight, and she’ll surely continue to promote these efforts, but one big unknown is how the current administration will promote them. It’s important for people to know what resources are available, and if the school lunch scenario is any indication it wouldn’t be a surprise if the importance of childhood exercise was also downplayed.

But not everything is in the hands of the federal government. State and local governments can do their part to encourage childhood exercise. In 2016, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced $150 million in funding for the improvement five of the city’s "anchor parks," one in each borough, adding amenities "like new soccer fields, comfort stations, running tracks and hiking trails."

In a recent appearance on the Pod Save America podcast, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti confirmed his desire to have the city host the 2024 Olympic Games. The city last hosted the Olympics in 1984 and it was one of the few instances where the games were actually profitable for its host city. Mayor Garcetti wants to have another money-making opportunity and to use the profits to fund childhood exercise, subsidizing recreational leagues so more families can afford to have their children participate in sports.

He has a pretty good argument for this: the last time the city invested heavily in promoting sports, Serena and Venus Williams started playing tennis. That’s not a bad secondary benefit, right after saving families billions of dollars in healthcare costs.