Obesity Is a Disease – What Does It Mean for the Fitness Industry?

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When I sat down to do some research before writing up this post today, I typed into Google, “Is obesity,” but before I could get any further, Google finished my question for me: “Is obesity a disease?” 61,600,000 pages came up when I hit enter. It’s the question everyone is asking — and now the American Medical Association (AMA) has answered it. On Tuesday, after considered debate, the physicians’ organization voted to extend official disease status to the condition. Yes, is the answer to the question. It’s a disease.

What this means for the medical community is immediately clear: Doctors will now be required to raise concerns about weight with obese patients and to prescribe a course of action to help treat it. As it is now, some doctors are reluctant to discuss obesity with patients, in part because addressing the issue can be a time-consuming process, the cost of which often is not covered by insurance companies. Now, with the AMA’s new designation, doctors will be professionally obligated to diagnose and treat the disease, which means insurance providers will feel greater pressure to provide reimbursements.

All well and good, but since obesity is a disease – what does it mean for the fitness industry? The implications are not so clear. The change could be very beneficial. With more than 78 million obese adults and 12 million obese children in the country, there is now a huge portion of the population — more than one-third — affected by what doctors consider a disease. Because this is a disease best treated, for most people, through changes in lifestyle that incorporate dietary overhaul and regular exercise, health clubs, gyms, and other fitness facilities stand to gain a slew of new members — members whose doctors will be monitoring them to make sure they’re sticking to their regiments.

While the AMA’s decision doesn’t require insurance companies to pay up, it does put pressure on them to do so. Does this mean that insurers will begin classifying obesity as a disease? And if they do, will they pay for gym memberships and personal training sessions? It’s possible, but if they do, the fitness industry could find itself bogged down in the same kind of paperwork that assails doctors’ offices, with only certain percentages of costs being covered and with endless red tape. Membership levels could rise, and rise dramatically, but membership could become a complicated new thing.

It’s impossible to know what all the ramifications will be, but now that the AMA has had a chance to debate the pros and cons and imagine a healthier future for obese people in this country, it’s time for the fitness industry to start a dialogue of its own. What does it mean for those of us who provide services that could potentially help a large number of disease-sufferers? What kind of relationship, if any, do we want to have with health insurance providers? How can we gear our businesses to be most beneficial to both diseased and healthy populations — while also remaining sound businesses? We need to start talking now.

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