AMERICA'S WAISTLINE: AN UGLY SIGHT New survey shows slothful habits have overcome health movement of last decade


WASHINGTON -- Americans are fatter, more stressed out and no likelier to get regular exercise than 10 years ago, warns a new poll that says the nation is descending into cholesterol hell.

The national survey by Louis Harris and Associates comes as Hillary Rodham Clinton's White House task force seriously is considering making personal responsibility and preventive care building blocks of national health reform.

Well, guess what, Mrs. Clinton? Most of us have health habits like your husband's.

We eat too much junk food, work at a frantic pace and cheat on our sleep. (Bill Clinton does run every morning, which puts him up there with an elite 8 percent who get daily exercise.)

Humphrey Taylor, who supervised the Harris poll for the hospital supply firm Baxter International, said a country with a health-care bill that's headed for the $1 trillion mark should be concerned about the findings.

"It's quite likely that the healthy lifestyle movement of the last decade was just a passing fad that could go the way of the hula hoop and Cabbage Patch dolls," Mr. Taylor said. "What we thought was an inevitable march toward a healthier lifestyle has gone sour, and some indicators have turned down."

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, found that 66 percent of Americans were overweight in 1992, compared with 58 percent back in 1983. There was a 10-point jump in the proportion of the population who are at least 10 percent above recommended weight.

The survey also showed fewer people are trying to eat healthy diets. Between 1991 and 1992, the proportion of those avoiding cholesterol and fats fell by 6 percentage points.

Sleep was down. Stress was up. Exercise was virtually unchanged. In 1983, 34 percent got strenuous exercise at least three days a week, as doctors recommend. In 1992, it was 33 percent.

On the positive side, smoking and drinking continued to steadily decrease, and women and men were more conscientious about getting regular health screening.

Tougher laws helped strengthen the taboo against drinking and driving, and nudged more people into using seat belts.

Still, Mr. Taylor said worsening dietary habits and lack of enthusiasm for exercise offset the gains.

The poll's findings were presented to Mrs. Clinton, who in addition to putting broccoli back on the White House menu has a strong interest in preventive care.

A senior administration official said preventive care and personal responsibility will be "a critical component" of the administration's health-care reform plan, which is due in early May.

"It is a recognized fact that prevention at the front end avoids the need for expensive emergency care later on," the official said. "That is the very premise that underlies the idea of a basic health plan for all Americans."

The American Medical Association estimates that lifestyle factors, such as smoking and drinking, and social problems, such as teen-age violence, account for $171 billion a year in health-care costs.

In addition to a stronger childhood immunization program and higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol, sources working with the White House task force said the administration is considering:

* Making physicals, well-baby care, and health screenings part of a core benefit package that all insurers would be required to offer. While health maintenance organizations now cover preventive care, traditional insurance plans generally do not.

* Giving people who cultivate good health habits -- such as getting regular checkups and not smoking -- a discount on their health insurance.

* Increasing funds for community health centers in low-income neighborhoods, and encouraging public schools to set up health clinics for students.

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