Colorado’s rep as a fit state threatened by child obesity

Colorado’s reputation as a fit state has been helping corporate recruiters make their pitch to prospects for years. The growing child obesity problem, however, is making that more problematic.

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that Colorado is the fittest state in the country. The CDC tracks obesity by Body Mass Index (BMI), a measure of an adult’s weight in relation to his or her height. An adult is considered obese if his or her BMI is greater than 30. Colorado’s BMI is 21.7 percent.

Lower rates of overweight and obese people translate into lower overall health care costs and less time taken off work for health reasons.

But childhood obesity is threatening the state’s health and wellness record. Colorado now has the second-highest rate of increase in child obesity in the country, and ranks 23rd overall.

Those statistics have spawned action from people in public policy. They want to address the negative childhood trend now, before it takes an economic toll later.

A 2007 study in the American Journal of Health promotion found that overweight workers cost employers an extra $201 a year. Obese workers are even more expensive. They cost $644 a year in medical and lost productivity.

Until now, the state’s reputation for outdoor opportunities and an emphasis on staying trim has been a major selling point for businesses looking to hire on the Front Range or set up shop in Colorado.

“Colorado certainly has its attractions. The outdoor life brought me here,” says Eric R. Ridenour, President and CEO of UQM Technologies Inc. in Longmont. “It was lifestyle and the mountains, and it’s good for recruiting to this area.”

Ridenour (who came to UQM after a distinguished career in the auto industry in Detroit) and many of his executive peers here know that the key to landing just the right person for the job is often flying them in to the region and giving them the Front Range tour.

Companies like UQM tout the state’s fitness record to prospective employees, both to lure them to the area and as a way to identify people who have a desire to stay fit and healthy.

In addition to having the nation’s lowest obesity rate, Colorado is currently ranked second-lowest for diabetes, third lowest in cancer deaths and fourth lowest in cardiovascular disease, according to the United Health Foundation’s 2011 rankings.

It’s no wonder, then, that many recruiters and Chamber of Commerce types trumpet the state’s fitness status — though not everyone actually agrees.

“I don’t want to say it has absolutely no effect, but in general, I would say the fact that we are the fittest state has limited impact on hiring and the economy,” says John Cody, president, Longmont Area Economic Council. “Here’s why I say that. It doesn’t translate into lower insurance rates, so from a company perspective, that’s where the wheel hits the water. In fact, Colorado happens to be one of the higher cost states in health insurance.”

Cody allows that anecdotal evidence suggests that retention of employees is high in Colorado because of the activities available.

“That’s more of a happiness index. People who live in Colorado are happy about being here,” he says. “But in terms of looking at bottom line and where companies relocate to and where they expand, it has not much to do with the overall decision.”

Maren Stewart, executive director of Livewell Colorado, a nonprofit working to reducing obesity, tracks the trend lines closely.

“Young adults move to Colorado for the active lifestyle; there’s a lot of opportunities to be active and so typically the younger adults are going to be at a healthier weight, so that somewhat skews the adult obesity rate a little lower,” she says.

“I think there’s a direct tie to health and economic development, and to the extent that Colorado can continue to be the healthiest state in the union, we’ll have an advantage to recruiting businesses to the state and keeping the businesses we already have here,” she adds.

Livewell Colorado is working on a number of fronts to make healthier choices easier for people and combat obesity.

The group works with cities and towns to make bike paths more usable and appealing, and neighborhoods more walkable. It also works with employers to help find small ways to get people moving.

“Something as simple as keeping workplace stairwells unlocked and lighted can make a difference. People who might not go on a full-blown diet might take the stairs if they’re available. We’re all about the small steps that people will incorporate into their lives that will be sustainable over time,” says Stewart.

Livewell is also working with schools to teach cafeteria employees to cook healthier foods from scratch, and provide more activities students for exercise during the school day. All these factors could help stem the tidal wave threatening to overtake Colorado’s future generations.

Ultimately, of course, the health of a workforce is only one of a number of factors used to choose a location to set up shop. Other issues include tax rates, right-to-work laws, incentives, quality of life and the debt level of state governments.

Ronald Pollina of Illinois-based Pollina Corporate Real Estate issued a widely reported ranking of the best states for business climate, and Colorado came up 14th in his survey in 2011.

“I’ve never in all my years had a client ask” about the health of the population, he says.

If Colorado could prove lower insurance rates and higher productivity, the health argument would be more convincing. “If people are healthy, they will be more productive,” Pollina noted. “But when people take time off from work – they’re not always sick.”

With a few exceptions, that might be true in Colorado more than anywhere else in the country.