Members weigh in on obesity as a disease
Wed, July 3, 2013 at 15:19
Brad Spiegel in ACAC, ACE, AMA, Debbie Nogawa, Jessica Matthews, Karen Jashinsky, Marina Lebo, News, Obesity

On the surface, the recent announcement that the American Medical Association has decided to designate obesity as a disease is great news.

How can it not be? Now doctors will be able to prescribe various solutions for the overweight, the current epidemic is now being brought to the forefront as a serious issue that needs to be dealt with, and, for the fitness industry, it may bring in more visitors through the doors.

While all of that is true, it is not all perfect. 

First, doctors still need to take the time to talk to patients who are in need of a solution – usually exercise and a proper diet. But, as many physicians get paid on the number of patients they see, squeezing in even a 20-minute discussion on the benefits of hitting the gym may be too much for a primary care physician. And, what if now, with obesity considered a disease the option of surgery, like gastric bypass, or a yet-to-be discovered drug is the easier way?

Then, there are insurance companies. If they don’t cover gym memberships or other options that cost money then there is a viable chance the obese will not take their doctor’s suggestion.

But this doesn’t mean the new disease label can’t be an impetus for battling the ghastly obesity numbers – currently 1 in 5 for children and 1 in 3 for adults.

“I’m optimistic that this new designation will bring more awareness to the severity of obesity in this country, but more importantly that it will help to gather more support for interventions as well as research to help prevent and treat what is now being recognized as a disease,” said Jessica Matthews, exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. “Perhaps the new designation will encourage the medical community as well as policy makers to rethink how we tackle this issue and will empower fitness professionals and other members of the fitness industry to help lead the way in terms of ultimately helping people to make positive, lasting changes.”

Karen Jashinsky, CEO and founder of O2 Max Fitness in Santa Monica, said she got into the industry a little more than a decade ago to be part of the solution for the obese.

“In a lot of ways this bring more awareness to fitness industry,” she said. “It is an opportunity for the industry to do what we’ve been doing – an advocate for primary prevention, explaining the benefits of exercise – and brings it to the forefront.

“I think some people benefit from extreme measures. Now that (obesity) is classified as a disease it will send a message to the public that there is a solution.”

“By having the AMA backing it as something so serious, number one it gives the issue awareness. I believe (the obesity epidemic) will be looked upon differently and because of that we will see more action,” said Debbie Nogawa, founder/CEO of GalaxZ, an all-inclusive kids fitness club. “Sometimes it takes something drastic to get traction.” 

ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers feel they already have come up with a solution. And this announcement can only help the obese near its four locations in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

P.R.E.P. (Physician Referred Exercise Program) is a prescription of sorts from a doctor. For 60 days (at a cost of $60) the patient gets full access to the club, guidance from the staff for a fitness program, check-ups and more. ACAC clubs also have a nurse and surgeon on staff to assist.

“We are hoping more physicians see the need and responsibility to talk about exercise,” said Kelly Lynn, Medical director at ACAC. “Our industry … instead of catering to already fit, we need to cater our facilities to get obese people fit.

“When our owner, Phil Wendel, started this program, 20 percent (of the population) were always going to exercise. He figured we can survive on them, or we can go to the rest of the population who are intimidated, scared (to enter a gym) … if can get them in the door by a referral, then we can truly change their lives.”

Of course the current participation, and possibly the subsequent increase, doesn’t hurt ACAC’s bottom line. Lynn said they see a significant number of participants end up becoming members following the 60-day period.

Marina Lebo, executive director of Healthtrax in West Springfield, Mass., feels that this is a positive development. She fears however, that those considered obese and overweight will use the word disease as a “crutch.”

“I think some people will use this as a crutch,” said Lebo. “Certain people will say they can’t do this or that because they have been diagnosed with a disease and I am inhibited doing certain things.”

She felt success may depend on accountability. It is not only about the patient but also the doctor who is prescribing exercise. She said a program like Weight Watchers is a great example. With scheduled check-ins and follow-ups, slacking will be noticed. And, like Weight Watchers, if you stop your program you will regress to where you started.

And like Weight Watchers, with hopefully more gym “prescriptions” there will be more overweight individuals at the gym. There aren’t many things that can make someone who is uncomfortable at the gym more comfortable than someone like them there, too.

“A huge success at Weight Watchers is the ability to share (the process) with someone like you,” added Lebo, who said she is hoping to start small group coaching for the obese in the fall. “Making people feel comfortable and letting them know that they are not alone is something (the industry) can do to help.”

The health and fitness industry has been instrumental prior to the AMA’s announcement, and now it has more opportunities to show that is can be leaders in the fight against obesity.

“I think this is an opportunity for the health and fitness industry to lead the charge and convert ‘recommendations’ into real-world change,” said ACE’s Matthews. “Our industry plays a pivotal role in helping to eradicate the obesity epidemic and by working to ‘bridge the gap’ between the fitness industry and allied healthcare we can positively impact the lives of the more than one-third of adults and nearly 20 percent of children affected by this condition. From personal trainers, group fitness instructors and health coaches to club managers and owners we have the opportunity to play an integral role in facilitating lasting lifestyle changes and enabling people to lead healthier, happier, fitter lives.”

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