09/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Heavy is Your Fitness Footprint?

When I hear strident voices arguing about options for healthcare reform, I picture passengers arguing about the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

You don't have to be a math major to figure out that the majority of American adults who are overweight (66 percent, or 200 million citizens) are inadvertently putting themselves at risk for life-threatening, expensive-to-treat medical problems. Surplus pounds increase the risk for diabetes, certain cancers and stroke. And having even one of four factors commonly referred to as the deadly quartet (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high triglyceride levels) increases the risk of heart disease. Combined, they are a likely predictor of premature death.

The number of supersized children is also worrisome: nearly one-fifth of our nation's 4-year-olds are obese. Since 1980, the number of overweight children has doubled; for adolescents the number has tripled. The long-term effects of childhood obesity (elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, joint problems, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, asthma, depression and anxiety) will require intensive medical intervention. Researchers predict that this may be the first generation in the past two centuries to have shorter lives than their parents.

Given this context, those debating the merits of various payment plans to reform our current "disease management system," as Dr. Andrew Weil labels it, seem to be ignoring the reality that the ship is sinking.

Granted, we need to make medical care more accessible and affordable and reduce unnecessary costs. But far more importantly, we need to place people in lifeboats. We need to figure out how to reduce lifestyle-related diseases that trigger the need for expensive medical care in the first place. We need to lighten our fitness footprint.

I coined this term to describe the impact of our personal lifestyle on health and life expectancy, along with the global impact on the environment. A healthy body on a healthy planet is the goal. But this goal can be achieved only if we reverse the unchecked epidemic of obesity. As waists become thicker, footprints become heavier.

Measuring and taking stock can be life-saving. When I stepped naked on the bathroom scale one morning and it broke, I knew I had to lose weight. What I didn't know was that 183 pounds on a 5-foot-2-inch frame placed me in the 90th percentile for heart disease, cancer and stroke -- plus a few other conditions that had yet to show up on tests. (Evidently, most of the calories I burned were ones spent digging my grave with a fork and spoon.) After changing my lifestyle and losing weight, my forgiving body scored in the normal range, and I (and my insurer) avoided thousands of dollars in medical expenses.

Until that point, I failed to connect the dots. I failed to see the connection between my lifestyle and the very real complications that would eventually play out as life-threatening medical problems requiring expensive medical treatment. I also failed to see the connection between my food choices and their impact on the environment. My ignorance could have cost me my life, hence my passion for encouraging others to take stock before it is too late.

Measuring your fitness footprint is the first step in achieving a healthy body on a healthy planet. Here are three areas to assess:

Health Risks: How does your lifestyle influence your blood pressure, body mass index, body fat and risk of a heart attack, a stroke or diabetes? Are you increasing your risk of life-threatening medical problems by indulging in a sedentary lifestyle or too many burgers and fries? Are your medical bills contributing to the estimated $147 billion Americans will spend on weight-related medical care? To calculate your risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and stroke, go here.

Longevity: How does your lifestyle influence the length of your life? Do you eat fresh fruits and vegetables daily? Are you connected in a meaningful way to others? Do you exercise on a regular basis? How much alcohol do you drink? Do you smoke? To calculate your physiological age and how long you can expect to live given your current lifestyle, go here.

Food Choices: How does your choice of food impact the environment? What we choose to eat is critical because the production and consumption of food may account for one-third of the total global carbon emissions. According to ecological measures, we need all the farms we have now plus many more on nearby planets if we are to sustain our current habits. To calculate the impact of your food choices, go here.

It's not difficult to lighten your fitness footprint. You can begin by making a few simple, ecologically friendly food and lifestyle choices part of your daily routine.

Follow the seasons when choosing foods and, when possible, purchase produce from local growers. Make creative use of leftovers so food is not wasted. Pick one day a week to enjoy a meatless meal. Stop eating when you are no longer hungry rather than when you are full.

Integrate movement into your day, whether that means pacing the floor when you talk on the phone or taking the stairs instead of an elevator. Support community groups that are working to create foot-friendly communities through the construction of trails, parks and bicycle paths. Recycle your tennis shoes and carry a reusable water bottle. When possible, go outdoors and exercise with a positive friend. Stay socially connected and laugh a lot.

It's been over 97 years since the Titanic sunk. I hope the acrimonious debate about medical care doesn't take that long. Fortunately for us, we don't have to wait for its conclusion before we begin our own healthcare reform. While there's still time, we need to lighten our fitness footprint so we are nimble enough to scramble into a lifeboat.