Commentary: Fighting noncommunicable diseases in our own backyard

Special to McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 29, 2011 

Call it an epidemic or call it a challenge of epidemic proportions. But when nearly two-thirds of all deaths around the globe are due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), there’s no dancing around the fact that we’ve got a manifest problem.

Last week, world leaders gathered in New York at a United Nations Summit to develop a declaration for united government action to protect against NCDs and their socioeconomic consequences. NCDs include chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease. The focus and political discussion surrounding this meeting has been centered largely on the devastating impact that these diseases are having on the world’s poor and developing countries.

These nations — many of which have neither the medical resources found in Europe and North America to treat these long-term illnesses, nor the economic fortitude to withstand the fallout when large portions of their populations are debilitated — need our help.

There’s a paradox here. It seems after all, that in this global battle against chronic disease, we’ve fallen short in our efforts to even help ourselves.

Ponder this: NCDs account for 6 out of 10 deaths worldwide. In the United States, NCDs account for 8 out of 10 deaths.

And according to the World Health Organization's (WHO) Report on NCD Country Profiles, our health risk factors don’t look so good either.

Almost 71 percent of the U.S. population is overweight; 33 percent is obese; 12 percent has raised blood glucose; roughly 34 percent has high blood pressure; and 55 percent has high cholesterol. In fact, in the United States today, almost one of every two adults has at least one chronic illness.

Perhaps most despairing, however, are the statistics regarding our behaviors. It is well-established and has been widely communicated that chronic diseases are largely the result of four controllable health risk behaviors — the lack of physical activity, poor diet, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption. Yet, in the face of this fact, 43 percent of Americans remain physically inactive, and roughly 16 percent smoke on a daily basis.

Granted, this historic high-level meeting of the UN was designed with the intent of helping the world’s poorest nations. But it also gives us an unprecedented opportunity to peer into our own looking glass and see how, here at home, we’re dying a slow and costly death at the hand of our own lifestyle choices.

As UN members formulate a coordinated strategy to prevent and control NCDs around the globe, we need to consider our own efforts. What can we do, as a united nation, to fight back the NCDs that we’ve let grow out of control in our own backyards? We have an opportunity here.

Certainly, federal, state, and local governments need to create public policies that support exercise and healthy lifestyles so the healthy choice becomes an easier choice for all Americans. But every one of us has a role to assume.

There is one initiative already in play that has garnered the support of virtually every sector of American society. And it provides tangible ideas for what each of us can do.

Our country’s first-ever National Physical Activity Plan (Plan) lays out a vision that one day, all Americans will be physically active and will live, work, and play in environments that facilitate regular physical activity. Its ultimate purpose is to improve health, prevent disease and disability, and enhance quality of life. The usefulness of this Plan is that it lays out specific strategies and tactics for doing so.

In fact, proponents of the Plan already are taking action on national, state, and local levels. They’re working to develop state and school district policies that require comprehensive physical activity programs; identifying best practices and model interventions for the promotion of physical activity in the workplace; leveraging professional, amateur, and college athletics/sports infrastructures to enhance opportunities for physical activity in communities; seeking to improve community planning processes so they integrate, and prioritize, opportunities for bicycling and walking; encouraging the medical community to make physical activity a “vital sign” to be assessed at every patient visit; disseminating tools and resources that educate people on the importance of exercise; and more.

Each of us, working alone and together, has the capacity to push back the rate of noncommunicable diseases and curb the human, social, and economic devastation they cause.

Certainly, in today’s cash-strapped environment it will not be easy for the UN to get the funding and momentum needed to make a difference for the world’s poorest countries.

But by changing our lifestyle habits to improve our health here at home, we consequently improve our economic stability. And by so doing, we not only regain our own quality of life, but we become better-positioned to help that child in Ethiopia who is suffering from asthma, diabetes or Leukemia, and who so desperately needs adequate medical care.


Joe Moore is President and CEO of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Under his leadership, IHRSA is co-leader, along with the American Heart Association and the American Council on Exercise, of the Business and Industry Sector of the National Physical Activity Plan; is an Organization Affiliate of the plan; is an organizational member of the National Coalition to Promote Physical Activity (NCPPA); is a partner with HHS in promoting the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines; is a Network Member of the Exercise is Medicine™ initiative; and was a primary participant in the launch of the Adult Fitness Test introduced by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Moore also is a member of the advisory board of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease. IHRSA recently introduced the publication, "The Economic Benefits of Regular Exercise." Contact him by email at

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