With the increase in nationwide belly button-contemplation about the "dangers of sloth" as an article in the latest Harvard magazine called our growing public porkiness, the results of a recent Harris poll can shed some light on the nationwide obesity issue.
Turns out the public's most popular leisure activities actually involve little or no exercise. In fact, the poll revealed there has been a 15 percent increase in the last eight years in favorite leisure activities (we use that word despite its root "active," which seems to imply some kind of movement) that demand nothing of a person except sitting -- from 62 percent in 1995 to 71 percent in 2003.
On the flip side, that means of course that the percent of folks who opt for something in their spare time that requires movement has dropped from 38 percent to 29 percent. These include fishing, gardening, playing team sports, swimming, golf, walking, exercise, hunting, bicycling, hiking, camping, running, bowling, dancing, tennis, horseback riding, skiing or housework/yard work, according to pollsters. These same pollsters have been conducting telephone surveys of a cross-section of adults since 1995 to ask what their two or three favorite leisure-time activities are.
Exercise is the magic pill
"We've spent years studying numerous nutritional and lifestyle factors," said Frank Hu, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (SPH), in speaking to the author of the story called "The Deadliest Sin" in the most recent Harvard magazine. "The single thing that comes close to a magic bullet, in terms of its strong and universal benefits, is exercise."
Author Jonathan Shaw wrote in the article: "In the bottle before you is a pill, a marvel of modern medicine that will regulate gene transcription throughout your body, helping prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and 12 kinds of cancer -- plus gallstones and diverticulitis. Expect the pill to improve your strength and balance as well as your blood lipid profile. Your bones will become stronger. You'll grow new capillaries in your heart, your skeletal muscles, and your brain, improving blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients. Your attention span will increase. If you have arthritis, your symptoms will improve. The pill will help you regulate your appetite and you'll probably find you prefer healthier foods. You'll feel better, younger even, and you will test younger according to a variety of physiologic measures. Your blood volume will increase, and you'll burn fats better. Even your immune system will be stimulated. There is just one catch.
"There's no such pill. The prescription is exercise."
Harris Interactive has a slightly different, albeit more depressing, take on the percent of adults that is overweight, partly since scientific and government definitions have been modified. Using the same measure for the last 20 years, Harris reports that 58 percent of all adults over 25 were overweight in 1983. That number -- using the identical measures -- had risen to 80 percent as of December 2003. And the proportion of adults over 25 who were 20 percent or more over their recommended weight -- what it defines as "obese" -- has increased from 15 percent to 33 percent over the last 20 years.
What to do
Obviously reclassifying the definition of overweight and obese upward won't decrease the real numbers of people who are just plain too big. But another Harris poll found that most Americans don't believe in financial incentives to lose weight.
Most people oppose the use of financial incentives to discourage obesity, despite saying three cheers for such incentives for smokers or non-seat-belt-users, according to the survey conducted for The Wall Street Journal Online's Health Industry Edition by Harris. A clear 52 percent to 27 percent majority opposes having those who are overweight pay higher premiums, co-payments or deductibles than those who are not overweight possibly because many people are now overweight themselves, or because obesity is thought to be "not their fault," the survey found. That, despite a majority of all adults saying they favor smokers paying higher health-care costs than non-smokers, and penalizing people who do not wear seat belts.
Also recently, a health policy analyst in Washington, D.C., has advocated that obesity be designated as a disease. Wrote Steven Findlay in an article in USA Today:
"We have super-sized, fat-snacked and couch-slouched our way to a serious health crisis. This threatens to reverse the hard-won gains we've made during the past 30 years: lower rates of heart-disease deaths, longer life expectancy and healthier aging."
He wrote that the recommendation of a government panel of experts that doctors weigh and measure patients to refer obese ones to counseling "falls short of the decisive action needed to kick-start a more serious response to this epidemic: designating obesity as a distinct disease. The IRS did so in 2002, so taxpayers could deduct the cost of weight-loss programs prescribed by a doctor. And federal health officials and private-sector health groups have been reviewing the issue for months. As with alcoholism and drug addiction, this step would permit millions of Americans to get the help they now lack because of limits in public and private insurance coverage. It would put obesity prevention and treatment research and drug development on new footings. And it gradually would alter public perceptions of the condition."
"Not their fault"
Emerging theories confront the belief of "not their fault," it seems. Now, science blames more than just cultural and social issues that involve video games, computers, over-sized popcorn tubs, and constant snacking, but are also looking at both behavioral and metabolic reasons behind what are called genetics: Maybe you have "fat" genes, but maybe you're also just raised to eat too much, too often. Studies have shown that when both parents are obese, the chance their offspring also will be obese is 60 percent to 80 percent; when both parents are thin, the likelihood of a child becoming obese is 9 percent.
Findlay went on to say that large-scale social action is necessary, such as the past public-health responses to drunken driving, smoking and auto safety.
"Once the evidence becomes clear, we must kick into high gear. That means firm government regulation and changes in behavior, both voluntary and altered by law (think smoking in public places)," Findlay wrote. "The problem is that this process can take years. Declaring obesity a disease would be a strong first step toward accelerating our response to the epidemic of excess fat in our diets, on our bodies and in our body politic."
SNEWS View: We don't want to begin to ridicule those who battle the bulge, and indeed there are sometimes metabolic and genetic issues at play. But we as a culture need to stop seeking external excuses and reasons for anything that is "wrong" or perceived as a fault. We need to stop blaming (or suing) some Big Daddy and asking that omnipotent higher power to do what we should try to do ourselves. We must start looking internally at what we could personally undertake, albeit involving some effort. The community-wide "meltdown" weight-loss/get-fit event in a small Northern California town where 1,000-plus participants lost more than 7,500 cumulative pounds in eight weeks (see SNEWS story Feb. 27, 2003) is a great example of everybody acknowledging that something is wrong, then joining together to work on the problem.