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Is Gluttony the Real Culprit in Our National Obesity Epidemic?

Family at Thanksgiving dinner

If you’re like many of us, November and December bring an unwanted holiday gift: a few extra pounds that show up when we step on the scale in January! Maybe you even got a head start by finishing off the leftover Halloween candy?

When we think about unwanted weight gain, we usually consider overeating to be the top cause. We are quick to own up to one of the seven deadly sins—gluttony! But two recent studies from Stanford University suggest that another deadly sin may be even more to blame: sloth.

In order to uncover the factors that are driving today’s well-known obesity epidemic, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers examined 22 years of data about the health practices of thousands of Americans. During that time period, the rate of obesity rose from 25 to 35 percent of women, and from 20 to 35 percent of men. But to the surprise of the researchers, the number of calories the study subjects were consuming each day did not change significantly.

Then they took a look at the amount of time the study subjects spent exercising. Said study author Dr. Uri Ladabaum, "What struck us most was just how dramatic the change in leisure-time physical activity was." The researchers continued, "The percentage of women reporting no physical activity jumped from 19 percent to 52 percent between 1988 and 2010; the percentage of inactive men rose from 11 percent to 43 percent over the same period."                        

It isn’t hard to figure out what’s behind this trend. More Americans sit down all day at their jobs, or perform limited movements as automation replaces manual tasks. We are more likely to text a co-worker than to walk down the hall to their desk. At our lunch hour, we go outside—not for a walk, but to sit on a bench with our smartphones as we scroll through our Facebook page. We are spending more of our leisure time than ever in front of our devices; the TV hours of 22 years ago have been joined by hours spent almost motionless, browsing the Web or playing video games. A recent Caring Right at Home poll showed that 41 percent of readers make an effort to exercise but spend most of the day sitting down. Another 36 percent report spending all their waking hours seated.

Seniors face even more challenges. Retirement cuts down on daily activity. Older adults may be dealing with physical limitations, transportation challenges and fear of falling.

But it’s vital to make time for exercise. Inactivity raises the risk of falls, osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis, memory loss, depression, heart disease, stroke and a host of other age-related conditions.

If you’re planning to put a healthier lifestyle at the top of your New Year’s resolutions, what’s the best way to go about it? Again, exercise tops the list. In another Stanford study, researcher Abby King, Ph.D., said that focusing on changing exercise and diet at the same time yields the best results—but you should start with exercise first. Indeed, say the researchers, "Focusing on changing diet first—an approach that many weight-loss programs advocate—may actually interfere with establishing a consistent exercise routine."

Why would this be the case? King’s team speculates that when busy people spend their precious spare time focusing on food choices, they are less likely to perceive that they have time to exercise. King explains, "With dietary patterns, you have no choice, you have to eat. You don't have to find extra time to eat because it’s already in your schedule. So the focus is more on substituting the right kinds of foods to eat."

The Stanford experts say that, in a nutshell, the goals should include:

  • Exercise: More than 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise.
  • Nutrition: Five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and keeping calories from saturated fats at 10 percent or less of total intake.

Talk to your healthcare provider now about an exercise plan that is right for you.

Learn More

Read "Seniors Aren’t Spared by Today’s Obesity Epidemic" in a previous issue of Caring Right at Home to learn more about the damaging effects of obesity, and to learn how in-home care helps senior clients maintain a healthy weight with diet, exercise and more.

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in-home care services.


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