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« Health, Fitness, or Wellness? | Main | The Naysayers’ Mistake »

The AMA Classifies Obesity as a Disease

As Americans continue to gain excess body weight, doctors still aren’t adequately addressing the topic of obesity with their patients. According to research conducted at the Penn State College of Medicine, in Hershey, the incidence of physician counseling for obesity has actually declined, while the rate of obesity has risen.

One explanation is that physicians aren’t yet trained, encouraged, or incentivized to discuss the problem with their patients.

However, there was hint of a sea change in July, when the American Medical Association (AMA) officially classified obesity as a disease.

The AMA’s position doesn’t have legal authority, and, technically, there’s no universal definition for “disease.” However, this is still a meaningful step toward according obesity and related illnesses the medical attention they deserve.

Currently, one-third of adults and two-thirds of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But extra pounds aren’t the only problem. Research has linked obesity to numerous chronic medical and psychological conditions. On the mental and emotional side, obesity is related to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and an overall reduction in quality of life. But, as well-informed fitness professionals know, these conditions are preventable.

Proper nutrition and an appropriate exercise regimen are essential to maintaining a healthy weight and warding off disease. In the medical profession, the phrase describing these sorts of healthy behaviors is “primary prevention.”

The AMA’s new stance on obesity represents an important call to action for medical professionals.

Currently, there are few treatments for obesity that don’t involve risky, expensive surgeries or prescription drugs, and doctors have little incentive to treat the problem, since obesity counseling isn’t a reimbursable medical expense. The AMA’s action also complements IHRSA’s efforts to establish clubs as the place that doctors think about when recommending exercise to patients. AMA officials and IHRSA both hope that its decision will eventually lead to physician reimbursement for weight-loss counseling.

“The AMA’s recognition of obesity creates a new opportunity for clubs and physicians to work together to create effective weight-management programs,” says Helen Durkin, IHRSA’s executive vice president of global public policy. “If the programs work, and if clubs can establish an evidence base, we’ll then have a strong case for third-party reimbursement.” Today, there’s no official definition of “obesity counseling,” but, notes Durkin, federal officials did touch on it briefly last year when the U.S. Preventative Task Force (USPTF), an advisory panel to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recommended that doctors screen all adults for obesity, and refer those with a body mass index over 30 to “intensive weight-management counseling.”

While the USPTF’s recommendation didn’t explicitly define “intensive weight-management counseling,” it did offer some criteria, suggesting that it should be at least three months in length, and encompass nutrition and regular exercise.

Still, getting policymakers to include club-based weight-loss programs in the official definition of weight loss counseling won’t be easy. Many health-related industries are petitioning lawmakers to make their industry’s services reimbursable, which is generating stiff competition. The health and fitness industry’s success in this endeavor will depend largely on the passion and motivation of concerned club operators. Fortunately, these are two qualities that club operators generally embody. 

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