Obesity is now a top reason that recruits cannot qualify to serve in the military (1), along with failure to finish high school and having a criminal record. Nine million young people are too overweight to serve and each year 1200 recruits are dismissed because of persistent weight issues. One former surgeon general describes obesity as moving beyond an epidemic to a “state of emergency” (1).
What will workers look like in ten or twenty years? Are we building a capable, healthy workforce? By many indications, no. Employers in Maine estimate that the rate of obesity (defined as a Body Mass Index of 30 or more) in their state workforce could reach as high as 80% within ten years (2).
Consider these statistics:
- Fewer than one in five high school-age youth are physically active for an hour every day, only one-third are active for an hour most days (3).
- Fewer than one-half of high school students beyond 9th grade have any organized PE classes in a typical week (3).
- Kids ages 8-18 now spend almost eleven hours per day on electronic media (e.g., computers, television, i-pods) (4).
- Kids average 1.5 hours of texting each day on top of other media (4).
- One study found that 70% six- to eight-year-olds believe fast food is healthier than home-cooked food (5).
- Fewer than one in five children receive the daily recommended serving of vegetables, and 25% of those vegetables came in the form of French fries (3, 5).
- 31% of children are overweight or obese (6).
When I see statistics like these, it is tempting to dismiss their importance and assume that this is the 21st Century version of kids-will-be-kids; when they grow up they will be fine. But will they?
Findings from a twenty-year study released last month make me wonder. Researchers found that persistent obesity extending from one’s high-school years has a significant impact on health and socioeconomic status at age 40 (7). Controlling for socioeconomic status in childhood, an obese child is significantly less likely to seek education beyond high school, and more likely to have a chronic health condition at age forty.
Plus, young adults who were persistently obese between 19 to 35 years of age were over 50% more likely to have a financial hardship (be receiving financial assistance from welfare or unemployment), and 40% more likely to have a social hardship (no partner) at age 40.
The implications of obesity from this perspective are sweeping: it’s not just about health anymore, but about future motivation, achievement, job success, and relationships with others.
In other words: today’s unmotivated, under-achieving, unhealthy students are much more likely to become our unemployed who require public financial assistance in 2030.
The critical intersection of skills, motivation and health.
We often describe human capital as having three distinct components: skills, motivation and health. Each human capital asset acts in conjunction with the other two. The longitudinal study mentioned above is a powerful example of how disruptions in one area can begin to impact the others. For example, society recognizes obesity as a health risk, but this research confirms that it is also a threat to one’s skill development and motivation. Interestingly, the authors also found that kids (in any socioeconomic group) who succeeded in school were less likely to become obese in the first place. In other words, skills and education have an impact on health and motivation. All three combine to predict one’s financial and social wellbeing as adults.
Not unrelated, studies on electronic media find that more hours playing video games and watching television are associated with less physical activity and poorer grades—and higher rates of obesity.
Many, many factors contribute to the obesity levels in American youth. At home, kids entertain themselves with sedentary activities; at school, tight resources and emphasis on test scores have limited “non-essential” topics like art, music and PE (8). Overall, busy schedules make home cooking and active family outings less frequent. Public media usually define obesity as a problem—but more often it is categorized as a HEALTH problem, separate from “important things” such as career and earnings.
Obesity’s threat to national security, productivity, and economy.
If nine million young people are unfit for the military, how many are insufficiently fit or trained for the workforce at large, even in less-physically-demanding jobs? And how many will underachieve because obesity influences self-esteem, motivation and skill development?
Yes, obesity is the result of a simple calorie imbalance: too few burned, too many consumed.
But now we know the consequences are anything but simple. Today’s overweight kids will become tomorrow’s underperforming workforce, at a time when we will need all the high-performing human capital we can muster due to:
• increased competition from developing nations like China and India,
• a fast-declining ratio of active workers to retirees, and
• a huge national debt that will need repayment.
We must make a critical distinction: we cannot blame obesity alone for creating an unfit workforce any more than we can blame schools for obesity. It is all connected. Instead, our society must decide that ALL aspects of human capital must be grown and protected as a key national resource.
If ever we needed a generation fit-for-duty, it is now. Think about it. Or, better yet, grab an apple, take a long walk with your kids and talk about it.
Why this matters: The name of this organization is the Health as Human Capital Foundation. There is no better example of a health threat to our nation’s human capital than the current wave of obesity washing over the country. This is an issue that requires immediate attention from families, schools, employers, and communities. Don’t assume it is someone else’s problem to fix. Each of us should take responsibility for our own fitness for duty—whatever duty that is.
1. Starr, P.Health Experts Call Obesity A Threat to National Security. Sep 10, 2009; (accessed Aug 2, 2010).
2. Richardson, J.Youth obesity scares businesses. Jul 5, 2010; (accessed Aug 2, 2010).
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System — United States, 2009. MMWR 2010;59(SS-5):1-142 (accessed Aug 2, 2010).
4. Kaiser Family Foundation.Daily Media Use Among Children And Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago. Jan 20, 2010; (accessed Aug 2, 2010).
5. Kaiser Family Foundation.Issue Brief: The role of media in childhood obesity. Feb, 2004; (accessed Aug 2, 2010).
6. Kaiser Family Foundation.Percent of Children (10-17) who are Overweight or Obese, 2007. (accessed Aug 2, 2010).
7. Clarke PJ, O’Malley PM, Schulenberg JE, Johnston LD: Midlife Health and Socioeconomic Consequences of Persistent Overweight Across Early Adulthood: Findings From a National Survey of American Adults (1986-2008). Am J Epidemiol 2010;
8. CNN. No child left out of the dodgeball game? August, 2006; (accessed August 2, 2010).