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Blog / 2013 / July / Obesity as a Disease: Will It Improve Pr...
July 8, 2013

Obesity as a Disease: Will It Improve Preventive Services?


In order to positively affect public health, the American Medical Association (AMA) recently declared and classified obesity as a disease, which means it now requires more medical treatment and, more importantly, a focus on prevention. While a spirited discussion evaluates the pros and cons of the AMA declaration - with reasoned arguments on both sides - health fitness professionals should recognize the professional opportunities centering on preventive services. 

What Will The Decision Change?

One out of three Americans is affected by obesity, and the AMA believes that recognizing this condition as a disease will:

  • increase an individual's ability to receive extra assistance from the medical community.

  • improve policy decisions regarding fast food, public health and other community factors that affect obesity.

  • provide greater health care and insurance coverage for preventive services and treatment for obesity, such as personal training, nutritional services and health coaching.

Reaction to this decision has been mixed, with some lamenting that individuals will now be able to cure their disease with pills and doctor visits. I propose the focus should be on what preventive services can be utilized to help reduce obesity. This will require a serious time investment from fitness, wellness and nutritional professionals to promote how behaviors and preventive services can help reduce obesity rates.

Preventive Care and Wellness Services

The AMA wants physicians to be able to prescribe preventive services to individuals, and have these services covered by health insurers. This could have a huge impact on obese individuals who are ready to make a lifestyle change, but don't know where to start or cannot afford personal training or other preventive services. Since 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General declared that smoking can cause diseases, health plans now cover smoking cessation classes and programs. Many health plans already cover some wellness services and will hopefully start to recognize the benefit that covering personal training as a wellness service to reduce obesity will be.

The Role of Personal Trainers

Personal trainers have the potential to create a positive shift in public health, supporting the decision to declare obesity as a disease. Trainers need to realize it will take time for health coverage plans to enact changes, but the fitness industry should support this decision and use it to positively impact behavior changes.

Typically, society views diseases as an illness, and that an ill person is "sick." However, this is not the intent of the decision, and trainers should not refer to obese individuals in this way-because of the negative reactions it can cause. At the same time, individuals should not use "their disease" as an excuse to why they're obese-instead, these individuals should use a diagnosis to seek more help, support and education. Personal trainers can provide all three of these needs, while reassuring individuals that they are not necessarily "sick," and that they can improve their own health without medication.

With this declaration, the medical community is also recognizing the fact that obesity is not easy to understand or change, and that educated professionals are needed to help society lower obesity rates. Physicians should recognize that they may need additional training, skills, or fitness professionals to help many obese individuals, and will be able to reach out to trainers for preventive assistance.

In my next post, I'll explore three specific ways personal trainers can help combat obesity. Until then, in what other ways do you feel a trainer can support the AMA's decision?

Julieann Hansen is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Yoga Instructor, Certified ACE Group Fitness Instructor, Certified Spin Instructor, Certified Workplace Wellness Specialist and has her Masters in Public Health. She has been in the fitness and wellness industry for nearly 10 years.

She currently serves on the Exam Development Team for ACSM's Committee on Certification and Registry Boards (CCRB). Julieann writes for a few online magazines and blogs, including Livestrong.com and Patriots Fitness Magazine. Julieann currently works as the Wellness Specialist for Rocky Mountain Health Plans and loves helping employer groups implement their wellness programs. When Julieann isn't working, she loves music, the outdoors, and running.

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