SOAP BOX • Citizens should unite in combating unhealthy, and deadly, lifestyles

A death certificate tells only part of the story. While Oregonians are dying of heart disease, stroke and cancer, the document may not state the most significant cause of death: obesity.

Each year about 300,000 deaths in the United States can be attributed to obesity, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General.

'The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity' reports that excessive weight and obesity are an epidemic public health problem and if left unabated may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking.

More than one in four Oregonians are overweight, and half are sedentary. Excessive weight and obesity are associated with heart disease, certain types of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, arthritis, breathing problems and psychological disorders such as depression.

We live in an environment that has made unhealthy behavior the easier choice. We drive rather than walk or bike. We eat burgers and fries rather than fruits and vegetables. We sit at computers and in front of televisions rather than getting the 30 minutes of moderate activity recommended by the surgeon general.

Our school districts are making deals with soft drink companies and putting vending machines in schools. The fast food industry promotes bigger sizes.

Improving the health and well-being of Oregonians will take the collaborative effort of families, schools, work sites, media, government and communities.

The first step is shifting the primary reason for weight loss and exercise from appearance to health. The second is figuring out what you can do about it.

More than 100 million Americans spend the majority of the day at a work site. Employers should establish work-site exercise facilities or create incentives for employees to join local fitness centers. They can help curtail the endless parade of unhealthy food appearing at workstations and reception counters everywhere, and encourage employees to share healthier snacks with their co-workers.

Oregon employers are spending huge amounts of money on health insurance and racking up an estimated $1 billion in hospital costs attributable to obesity, so these steps make good business sense.

The good news is that 50 percent of the risk of developing chronic disease and dying prematurely is posed by something we can change. Even modest weight loss Ñ 5 to 15 percent of total body weight Ñ reduces risk factors for conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

By modifying our environments and behaviors to promote healthier eating and increased physical activity we can extend lives, save money and improve the quality of life for thousands of Oregonians.

Dr. Grant Higginson is the state public health officer in the Oregon Department of Human Services.

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