Rocky Mountain National Park

Obesity, Exercise, and Healthy Eating All Rising

Business, consumer, and health research suggest that obesity, exercise, and healthy eating are all rising in parallel. How can this be? What does this say about strategies for reversing obesity trends that focus exclusively on more physical activity and healthy eating?

The latest report in this vein to capture media attention is a study published in Population Health Metrics by Laura Dwyer-Lindgren and colleagues from the University of Washington. They found that the level of physical activity in U.S. counties had risen substantially between 2001 and 2011. But they also found that obesity prevalence had risen at the same time. They conclude that increased exercise alone will not be enough to curb the obesity epidemic.

Statistics for the U.S. fitness industry would seem to confirm this observation. According to IBISWorld, Americans spent $45 billion on fitness in 2012 — a sum that has continued to grow for decades, even through the great recession. Likewise the grocery and restaurant industries report unprecedented demand for healthy food options. Healthier menu options and healthier groceries are where all the sales growth and profitability can be found today, we are told by gurus of these industries.

Yet all this interest in healthy behaviors is not translating into a reversal in the prevalence of obesity. It might be that exhorting people to eat less and move more, by itself, won’t be enough. Maybe more than just eating and exercising governs body weight and adiposity. After all, humans are complex, adaptive organisms — not simple engines with expandable fuel tanks.

But for Bruce Neal of the University of Sydney, who wrote an editorial to accompany the Dwyer-Lindgren study, the answer is simple. Government must implement food policy to counteract “transnational food corporations that market salt, fat, sugar, and calories in unprecedented quantities.”

Perhaps so. But it also seems likely that we need to invest substantially more in research for a deeper understanding of what’s driving this complex disease.

Our instincts and guesses don’t seem to serve us well on the subject of obesity.

Click here to read the Dwyer-Lindgren study, click here to read the Neal editorial.

Rocky Mountain National Park, photograph © Kent Kanouse / flickr

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