We are all aware of the hazards of being in debt. Too many individuals and families have gotten themselves in a poor financial situation by spending too much and not saving enough. For most, this debt has developed over several years and will have an impact lasting years into the future.


Unfortunately, this is not the only debt we face. Many of us are also in a health debt crisis.


Poor eating habits and increasingly sedentary lifestyles have led to an obesity epidemic. This is important since the three leading causes of death among adults (heart disease, stroke, and cancer) are directly linked to poor diet, inactivity and obesity.


Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are among the conditions that make up our health debt. Even if we have not been diagnosed with these or other health conditions, our lifestyle has put us on that path.


Whether our doctors have told us or not, many of us are in poor health. And our overall health and potential complications get worse each year, so the longer we are overweight and inactive, the worse our health is likely to be in the future. That is our health debt crisis.


Another example of a health debt is smoking, the cause of nearly 90 percent of lung cancer cases. Lung cancer doesn’t develop after the first cigarette; it takes years of smoking to cause cancer. One estimate suggests that there is a 20 year time lag between smoking and lung cancer diagnosis.


During this time smoking is causing damage to the lungs that leads to cancer, but it is usually undetectable. The cancer process is underway long before it causes symptoms, and since smokers are unaware of it, they continue to smoke. Quitting smoking begins to erase this debt but former smokers suffer poor health even after they quit. In some cases, the debt can’t be completely paid back.


Aside from poor health and reduced quality of life, health debt carries a financial cost. The medical costs attributed to obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion per year, and a typical obese patient spends more than $1,000 more per year on their own medical care than someone at a healthy body weight. The financial burden is both collective and individual, meaning we all pay for it.


Just as financial debt is due to an difference between the money we save and what we spend, much of our health debt is due to an imbalance between the energy (calories) we save and spend.


We have been spending too little energy through activity and saving too much of the energy we eat in the form of fat. Each day we consume more calories than we burn, we store that extra energy as fat. Even a small difference each day adds up over time.


Putting it in these terms, the pathway out of health debt is clear – spend more energy by being more active and cutting back on the calories we eat. Like a financial debt, even though the solution is easy to identify, putting it into place requires making some difficult choices.


But it doesn’t have to be a painful process. Even small changes in activity and diet can lead to weight loss and improved health over time. Make it a priority to be active every day and try to spend less time sitting. Pass on second servings at meals and skip desert once in a while.


Remember, the health debt wasn’t created overnight. It was the result of small changes over time, some of which we may not have noticed. Fixing it will take time, too.


Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.