Meredith says obesity would drop with universal access to fitness clubs
When I write about various topics of interest at my blog, the feedback that I receive from people about my posts usually spawns another discussion entirely on a similar subject matter. And that's exactly what has happened today.
I received an e-mail from a 20-year old Pilates Instructor from Los Angeles, California named Meredith who wanted to comment on my recent column entitled "Obesity: A Product Of Affluence Or Poverty?" As a certified fitness trainer and health advocate through her Pilates classes and at her blog The Pilates Body, Meredith has an intriguing perspective about what she believes is needed to help reverse the obesity epidemic in the United States and the unique role the government should play in that.
Here's what she wrote to me:
I love the passion you have for this important topic. And congratulations to you for making such a huge accomplishment!
I thought your statement about not "waiting on the government to come up with a plan" was the most notable. I agree it is not the responsibility of the government to help the obese and overweight lose the pounds, and I also do not think they should wait around for the government to do something.
However, I think the government should provide the ability for everyone to be a member of a health club or fitness program. As a Pilates instructor, I know it can be incredibly expensive to have a consistent trainer and pay for club memberships. Americans simply do not have the extra money to pay for these things.
If employers and insurance companies covered fitness regimens in their policies, I truly believe people could stay motivated to lose the weight and keep it off. It’s all about access and motivation, and I think there is something the government—and employers--can do!
So, Meredith, in essence, believes we should have government-subsidized gym memberships since many people cannot afford to pay for them. That's the premise of her solution to the obesity problem in a nutshell. But I have several concerns with this proposal she has made.
From an anecdotal standpoint, let me offer my experience about free gym memberships. I was extremely fortunate when I began livin' la vida low-carb in January 2004 because I work for a company that provides as part of the benefits package a complimentary family membership to the YMCA. How fortuitous! To Meredith's point, at the time I believed there was NO way I would have been able to afford the hundreds of dollars annually to be a member.
However, after losing 180 pounds in part because of my daily workouts at the YMCA, I spoke with the head of benefits last year bragging about how much I enjoy going to the gym and she shared with me a startling statistic--98 percent of the employees in the company have NEVER used their free gymn membership. NEVER. As in, they don't go. They haven't even bothered to darken the doors even once. Holy cow, what's going on? And the membership even includes three FREE sessions with a certified fitness trainer, too. EEEEK! What's wrong with these people?!
Sadly, this says a lot about our culture. We already knew that people in general are lazy and unmotivated to get started about making necessary changes in their lives. It took me 32 years to finally get serious about my health and weight problem. While it may sound good to provide every American with a free gym membership compliments of the United States government and/or their employer, what's the reality going to be? Will people take actually advantage of it or just ignore it completely? If the trend among my fellow co-workers is any indication, then it doesn't appear very much would change.
That's not to say I think Meredith's idea is necessarily a bad one considering all the other ridiculous social programs that our government has come up with over the years. But how effective would having fitness classes like the ones she teaches available at no charge if the people who need it the most choose to stay at home snacking on Cheetos while watching football? I don't think we have a budget problem necessarily, Meredith, but rather a refusing-to-budge one instead. :)
Speaking of money, though, your other point was that people can't afford a gym membership. I have to disagree with that and here's why. If paying to be a member of a fitness club was indeed a priority to them, then people would allocate money from their personal budget to pay for it. Period. We do it all the time with extra expenses such as fast food, bowling, golf, movies, vacations, etc. Health clubs could be subsidized by replacing some of these other activities with payments to this place that could help them lose weight and get into shape. We buy what we want to buy and, unfortunately, gym memberships aren't at the top of the list.
Let me put on my public policy hat for a moment (I have an M.A. in the subject) and talk about this issue of "the government's money." In a nutshell, THEY DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY! Not one red cent. What they have is OUR money and we have elected them to be the caretakers of that money to provide the best services to the Americans who need assistance. This is a reality that too many people forget about when election time comes and they fall prey to the pork barrel legislation that their Congressman promises to them. Isn't that so nice of them to spend my money on such inconsequential things!
When you start talking about the government paying for gym memberships, what you are basically saying is that people will be paying the government more money in the form of higher taxes to pay for themselves to have a gym membership. So, in the end, people actually CAN afford to join a health club when the government mandates it by offering universal gym memberships. UGH!
Furthermore, if the government stops short of funding the gym memberships out of the federal budget and instead passes legislation requiring business owners to give their employees open access to their local health club, then they are simply passing on an unfunded mandate to companies who will be forced to reduce their payroll dollars or raise their prices to be able to afford this incentive for their employees. Why do we want to put this onus on the foundation of our economy? Is it their duty to make their employees get fit?
Is this really the answer, Meredith? You know I'm a big supporter of exercise, but that's not the entire answer regarding obesity. We also need a multitude of nutritional approaches promoted to help people make wise choices about their weight problem. Since the government already dishes out unsolicited dietary advice, it certainly is within their realm of responsibility to provide information about a variety of programs that people could choose from to get healthy and lose the weight.
What are your thoughts about Meredith's idea for the government and/or employers paying for a free health club for every man, woman, and child in this country? Would it work to reduce obesity? Or do you agree with me that it would be a lesson in futility, unfortunately, because people don't have the passion and desire within themselves to get healthy? Share your comments below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9-18-06 UPDATE: Meredith blogged about her free gym membership idea today providing further support for her belief that the underprivileged are being denied access to this key part of their fitness plan.
Here's a quote from that post:
"If employers and health insurance companies included nutritional counseling and health club memberships in their policies...people would be better informed about what they put in their bodies, and they would have the opportunity to exercise safely on a daily basis. Additionally, if the companies provided incentives for employees and carriers participating in a fitness and nutrition routines, Americans would be much more successful in losing weight."
I still hear UNFUNDED MANDATE screaming in my ears or the BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU mentality that the federal government would bring to the table if they got involved in this issue. But even to the point of simply asking companies to provide these incentives, how many people will use them, Meredith?
I work for a pretty major company and you saw the percentage of people who never take advantage of their free gym membership. How much money is WASTED by companies trying to do something positive for the health of their employeees because they do not appreciate what they are getting? I keep waiting for the day when the benefits department sends out a notice telling us they are discontinuing the YMCA membership because of lack of participation and budget cuts. That day is coming sooner than later.