Ron Marinucci: April, 2015 Column - Too Little Exercise

Ron Marinucci: April, 2015 Column - Too Little Exercise

By Ron Marinucci,

“Too Little Exercise, Not Too Much Food, Blamed for Obesity.” The headline grabbed my attention immediately. And, as usual, it opened a can of worms far bigger than I had anticipated.

I inherently resent politicians and government bureaucrats telling me what I can and can’t do, especially when it comes to my life, for my health. Who do these arrogant elitists think they are trying to mandate what and how much of what I might eat? Thanks, but no thanks, I really don’t need them to tell me what to pack in my kids’ lunches. Some of my favorite foods have lost their appeal for me; with government regulations or, at least, recommendations, they just don’t taste as good. Most likely, you know which ones, too.

Often, it’s fat that gives many foods their good flavor. It makes food taste good! And it often satisfies us longer, keeping us feeling full. But for several decades, there has been a low- or non-fat crusade. The trend has been to eliminate fats, when, in reality, only a few fats, such as the synthetic transfats, are really bad for us.

Still, with so many low- and non-fat foods that are really healthier for us, we can eat more, right? Well, that’s what we have been doing for the past few decades, eating more. And that has been a leading cause in our epidemic of overweight and obesity.

This is where the headline struck me. So, it’s not our eating habits, or at least the amount of food we eat, that is the problem? Whoa! Not so fast there, big guy. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Nobody really disputes that Americans have become too fat and, especially, too obese. A casual look around, without doing any research, will confirm that. But the numbers are just as startling. According to the US Department of Agriculture, between 1950 and 2000, US obesity rates increased by 214 percent. In 1960, about one in ten Americans was obese and another 25% or so overweight.

Current studies vary somewhat in figures, but somewhere near two-thirds of all Americans are now considered overweight. About half of those are obese. The average American weighs between twenty and thirty pounds more than in 1960. We can debate definitions, but the obvious is not debatable. Americans need to lose weight.

Particularly devastating is that the epidemic has trickled down to children. The current generation of youngsters might be the first in American history to live sicker and, indeed, shorter lives than their parents because of their weight.

The solution, as is the entire matter, is complex, as my cited headline has led me to discover, thanks to some experts I consulted.

At first glance, all those warnings that Americans were eating too much seem accurate. And it’s not just too much, but the wrong kinds of too much. I ran this article, at least the headline, past one of my friends, Carrie Farnum, last week. She was a bit skeptical of the headline and immediately pointed to fast foods. “Just look at all the fast foods we eat,” she told me on one of our bi-weekly runs. “We didn’t eat like that before.” Personal experience suggests to me that she’s right. But what about the article of the headline in question?

A Stanford University School of Medicine study that appeared in the American Journal of Medicine points to a lack of physical activity as the primary cause of our overweight and obesity problems. That’s not to say, as the headline might seem to suggest, that consuming too much food (that is, too many calories) and the wrong kinds of it aren’t also culprits, because they are. But the biggest concerns of the study are our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and our failure to adjust our eating habits to it.

I realize I’m likely preaching to the choir with those who might be reading this now. After all, most of us run, walk, cycle, and do triathlons. But the Stanford study found a correlation between the skyrocketing rates of obesity and the decrease in time most Americans, young and old, spend being active, that is, doing things.

Adults have fewer jobs that require much physical activity. Many people, too, just to make economic ends meet in these hard times, scramble with long work hours or more than one job. There’s no time or energy for exercise or even leisure activities such as sports or just walking in the neighborhood. And, of course, there are far more television shows, movie opportunities, computer activities, and even video games than there once were.

Kids and teens move a lot less, too. They also have television (with dozens of stations devoted, 24 hours a day, to programming aimed at them), computers, and video games. Schools have cut back on physical education classes. It’s difficult to fathom, but fewer than 10% of US elementary and secondary schools now provide daily mandatory physical education for students. After all, is physical education on the increasingly numerous test students must now take to satisfy the whims of those politicians and bureaucrats? In fact, one study claimed one in five US elementary schools have even cut back on recess to provide more class time to prepare for the tests.

Citing the difference between then and now, Carrie remembered, “We [kids] were always doing something.” She laughed as she recalled “trying to dig to China” with a shovel and “making bike ramps” for jumping. The sedentary lifestyle has taken over for kids, too.

So, we’re eating more, but not a whole lot more—and maybe making some less healthy choices. The big problem with our increasing overweight and obesity problems is expenditure of calories. We burn far fewer calories than we consume. That’s due to our lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyle at work and leisure. Increased inactivity, then, requires eating fewer calories—less food.

Dr. Ana Baylin is a medical doctor and also has a doctorate in public health. She teaches epidemiology and nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan. She offered some very sensible observations regarding the Stanford study and the obesity problem in general. She cited, “both, lack of exercise and increased [caloric] intake” as culprits. She explained, “The emphasis of the Stanford study was on lack of exercise because until recently people were saying that physical activity had not changed so much. Everything was attributable to increases in caloric intake.” Dr. Baylin acknowledged that “in some particular segments of the population, leisure physical activity may have actually increased, but clearly work-related activity as decreased and sedentary behaviors have increased a lot.”

She noted, too, that “physical activity and dietary calories are variables that are measured very badly at the population level, with a lot of measurement error. So, some studies can show one thing and other studies may show the opposite.”

“The bottom line,” Dr. Baylin concluded, “is that we are experiencing an obesity epidemic because we are eating more than we should in regards to our energy expenditure. What people don’t realize is that if you are an adult spending your whole day sitting, the amount of calories you can afford is actually very little,” adding, “almost to the point that you may feel like ‘starving.’”

Liz Bailey is also an expert on nutrition. She’s a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at DMC Huron Valley-Sinai Hosptial. She’s also a long-time runner, with many marathons under her belt, and triathlete. She’s agrees with “the bottom line,” that Americans “need to eat less and move more.”

But she also notes that “obesity is a very complex problem. I don’t feel we can look at a single cause for the rise in obesity rates. Although I agree that lack of exercise is a major factor ad that we are becoming a more and more sedentary country, I don’t think we can negate the change in our food supply.” It’s the types of foods we are now eating. “As we consume more processed foods high in calories and low in nutritional value, it can’t help but also have an impact on our waist lines.”

Sheryl Lozicki concurs. She’s also a registered dietitian and the Director of Nutrition and Wellness at Mercy Health in Grand Rapids. One of her specialties is sports nutrition. “You can’t pin optimal health down to healthy eating and exercise alone. Adequate rest and stress management are also key.” She added an intriguing point, almost a stealth factor. While noting that fewer than “one-third of us are at a healthy weight, some of us stay in this range by dieting in the absence of exercise,” what she termed “skinny fat,” while “others use exercise as a means to cover up the sins of their diets.” She recommended “balance” between eating and exercise as well as “understand[ing] the importance of managing stress in productive ways and getting adequate rest……”

All three experts left me with more information, especially regarding runners and exercise, that perhaps I can explore in a near future column. But each emphasized the complexity of the issue of overweight and obesity. It’s not just this or that.

And the headline, “Too Little Exercise, Not Too Much Food, Blamed for Obesity,” as I should have known, was actually far more complex than I initially thought.