Americans Exercising, But Still Overweight

Good news! According to a report released last week, Americans are exercising more!

Bad news: we’re still drowning under our own flabbiness.*

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation conducted the research, which found that between 2001 and 2009, there was a significant uptick in physical activity in two-thirds of the nation’s counties. On average, the number of women getting the recommended minimum weekly exercise went from 46.7% to 51.3%, and for men the number nudged up one point to 57.8%.

In some places, the increases were more dramatic. In Concho County in west-central Texas, for example, the percentage of physically active men jumped from 16.7 percentage points to 58.2%.

However, warn the researchers, let’s not rest on our laurels now that Americans are exercising more (and getting all those cardiovascular and stress-reducing benefits that go along with physical activity). We’re still really, really fat. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States, nearly 36% of adults and over 18% of 6- to 19-year-olds are obese.

The University of Washington researchers concluded that “just counting on physical activity is not going to be the solution” to obesity.

Well, no kidding. Fitness and weight-loss enthusiasts have long asserted that exercise accounts for only 20% of weight loss while diet comprises the lions share at 80%. And this makes sense. No matter how much time you put in at the gym, if you don’t create a caloric deficit through your diet, you won’t lose weight.

But on the flip side, just focusing on diet isn’t enough, either. This excellent article from 2008 outlines the many complex and interrelated factors that sabotage weight loss, including hormones, chemical responses in the brain, and metabolism. Yet, contradictory to what this recent study from the University of Washington indicates, exercise could play a pivotal role.

The National Weight Control Registry has maintained data since 1994 on individuals who have maintained a weight loss of at least 30 pounds for at least one year.

Based on data from more than 7,000 people, [the co-founder of the registry] says there are few similarities in how people lose weight. But those who succeed in maintenance sing the same song.

Instead of trying to eat less for the rest of their lives to bridge the energy gap, these people exercise more. They typically spend an hour or more each day in aerobic exercise and strictly limit time spent watching television.

Physical activity, in ways that researchers don’t really understand, influences some of the biological systems that promote weight regain.

Regular exercise has so many health boosts, along with weight loss benefits that we’re just beginning to understand. So here’s a suggestion: rather than lament about how fat we all are, let’s be appreciative that Americans seem to be taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle.

* I’m purposely being tongue-in-cheek here. I feel news coverage surrounding the rise in obesity is greatly exaggerated with solutions that are misguided at best and, at worst, almost exclusively focus on shaming those whose BMI falls above the normal range.

Image: Exercise, a photo by Yale Rudd Center on Flickr.

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