How did we get here?

Reports on the ever-increasing obesity epidemic in our country are running rampant, so we should all know that the issue is a reality and is crippling us. In the first part of this series, my colleague Mike Clark defined what obesity is and how it can be measured. After acknowledging what obesity is, the next step is to clarify how we got here.

Why are Americans packing on the pounds? What decisions are we continuing to make that increase the likelihood of so many health risks and diseases? There are three categories to explore this week, including a lack of general movement and physical activity, poor diet choices and inadequate sleep.

Lack of movement

Our society has become sedentary. There is no question or denial of this statement. The latest report from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each week, both resistance training and flexibility to include exercises for all major muscle groups two to three times per week and neuromotor exercises to maintain or improve balance, agility and the likes at least twice per week. Not only has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that only 20% of American adults are actually meeting these recommendations, ACSM has indicated that the failure to meet these recommendations is not the entire problem. Most Americans live such a sedentary lifestyle, defined as sitting at desks, in the car or in front of a television frequently and for long periods of time, even the 20% who are making a point to fit physical activity into their weekly routine may still be at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other complications.

Poor diet choices

There is also no question or denial that we eat far more than we used to. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) issued some staggering comparisons of how our portion sizes have changed over the years. In the 1970’s, two slices of pizza totaled 500 calories whereas now two slices would pack 350 extra calories for a whopping total of 850 calories. A standard cup of coffee was 8 ounces and your additive choices were milk and sugar. The norm for a purchased cup of coffee now is at least 16 ounces with milk, sugar and whipped topping for a total of 330 calories. Bagels have gone from a 3-inch diameter with 140 calories to 5- or 6-inch diameter with 350 calories. And another unfortunate truth to our portion woes is that dinner plates have gone from a 10-inch standard diameter to 12 inches. Americans are simply sitting too long and eating far too much.

Inadequate sleep

Sleep is a critical component to overall health and wellbeing. Your brain is able to process information and store memories, cells can recover and regenerate, to name a few theories. Based on sleep research, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep every night, yet the CDC says one in three adults are sleeping less than five hours. The School of Public Health at Harvard University claims that so few hours of sleep results in a 15% increased risk of being obese. This link between lack of sleep and obesity may be due to altered hormones that regulate hunger, more hours awake to eat extra calories, decreased ability to make good decisions regarding food choice, and lack of energy for adequate exercise.

In summary, this sounds like an article from Negative Nancy herself. The sky may be falling over the USA to some degree, but there are answers and there is hope! Stay tuned for Mike Clark’s next article in this series that addresses why we need to correct our patterns and exactly how to do so.

Ellen Thornburg is an Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer at Duke Center For Living’s Health and Fitness Center. She received her BA in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology from UNC.

image by Filimonas via flickr