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home > community > viewpoint > obesity—it affects all runners

Obesity—It Affects All Runners
Runners are not immune to this epidemic, a dangerous trend for us all. But running programs can help—and we must demand better.

Obesity—It Affects All Runners

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By Skip Cleaver
Posted Wednesday, 25 January, 2006

Most runners see obesity as a problem for others, a problem they rise above because of lifestyle. It is obvious to most that running and exercise, along with the physical and dietary awareness running produces, make active people healthy and trim. After all, there are very few obese runners, and a relatively low percentage of runners who are overweight. Most runners are sympathetic to the problem, but unless they have an obese family member, most runners tend to ignore the issue.

However, obesity is a tremendous problem in this country, and it affects us all no matter how healthy our personal lifestyle. Obesity is overtaking smoking as the greatest threat to health in our society, and it is enormously costly for all.

Obesity is a dangerous epidemic spreading death and disability, but it is also a symptom of a society where over-consumption rules, where advertising is numbing our collective mind to what is desirable and good, and where we are marketing ourselves into materialistic oblivion as a country.

Running and walking can help! People must hear and understand this. This is one area of health over which we do have control—if we exercise it.

Running and exercise, and consequently good health in general, are at present on the losing side of a tremendous, deleterious marketing campaign. Millions and millions of dollars are spent every week to influence and convince consumers of all ages to eat more, drink more, drive more, watch 500 channels of television in high definition, and play more meaningless games while sitting. Physical activities are being removed from school curricula, even as junk food and advertising become more and more available and the norm within public schools.

How can we allow fast food and junk food in schools? Why do we allow programs to be cut from schools that promote physical activity?

Why is there no push from our state and national government to help counter these dangerous and costly trends—promotion and funding? Where are the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, US Department of Agriculture (Child Nutrition Division), and other agencies on this issue? Obviously campaign contributions from large corporations and their executives play a role in policy and decisions. Fast food giants and soft drink companies even sponsor the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, for example.

Our communities try to restrict advertising of substances such as tobacco and alcohol in the proximity of schools, and rightly so. At the same time, school boards are inviting fast food, candy, and soft drinks into the school hallways on the pretext of raising funds. Corporate sponsors now provide “educational materials” directly to students, a newfound method of advertising, which many jurisdictions accept because communities (and states) are unwilling to pay taxes at a level sufficient to provide for the education of our children, commercial free.

Many schools have cut sports from their budgets, forced parents to pay for equipment if they are maintained, and have often eliminated physical education. And kids face a Bermuda Triangle of problems in school: Fat foods for lunches (including increasingly branded fast foods), vending machines with candy chips and soft drinks readily available, and little or no physical education or activity. How can anyone be surprised that childhood obesity is a dangerous and rapidly spreading problem?

Adult Education Bill—We Pay
And it is a problem for adults as well, as everyone can plainly see in the workplace, the mall, and on the street. Americans are gaining weight in a big way (pun intended). Less and less physical activity combined with poor eating habits and unhealthy foods are contributing to a really serious problem in our society. A publication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begins, “A lifestyle characterized by physical inactivity and poor dietary habits is a leading cause of premature death in the nation, second only to tobacco use.”

Everyone, including all runners, will foot the bill for rising health care and insurance costs as a result of this epidemic. There is an especially sad and dangerous trend toward obesity in adults and children, and in many cases it is something that will not be correctable later in life—often lives tragically cut short. Weight problems will kill 370,000 Americans this year, and severely restrict the mobility and capabilities of millions. Education suffers, as does productivity in the workplace. The only good news—Fat is Big Business.

An Ounce of Prevention—Get Up and Run
Prevention can save many, many pounds. We spend billions nationally on various immunizations and a variety of prescriptions, but almost nothing is spent on organized physical activity such as hiking and running. If only a small percentage of this money were spent in funding running programs in schools, and also community programs organized by running clubs, our children would be much healthier, and happier. It would also help in other areas, such as depression and so called ADD. Instead, our society has chosen to treat kids with chemicals of various types (even when the effectiveness of prescriptions is questionable), and essentially reinforce a sedentary lifestyle.

We must counter the pernicious campaigns of fast food and junk food companies with local, state, and national initiatives regarding the necessity to exercise and consumption of nutritional foods in moderation. Gluttony and inactivity must end. It’s an uphill battle. Fat food and junk food companies fund fronts such as the American Dietetic Association and the Center for Consumer Freedom to advance their interests, in addition to overwhelming advertising campaigns. And they give huge sums to politicians’ campaigns. Corporate interests and profits trump public health in all sectors of our society. But we can change that with common sense.

Walking and Running can help!

What to Do?
The good news is that we can change these trends, and people of all ages can become much healthier by including regular exercise in their schedule. Powerful health benefits are derived from exercising as little as 30 minutes a day, five days a week, and by being more sensible about what we take into our bodies. Running, along with a sensible, nutritious diet can do wonders for the shape and health of the body. Running is not a cure-all, but can be of tremendous benefit for most people. It is inexpensive, can be done just about anywhere at anytime with no equipment or facilities required. People of any age can participate. It is one of the answers to this national epidemic—and it is an epidemic, as described by both the CDC and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic,” stated Jeffrey Koplan, former Director of the CDC. “Obesity and overweight are linked to the nation’s number one killer—heart disease—as well as to diabetes and other chronic conditions.”

If we spent on running programs only a small portion of the money used for diet pills, gastric bypass surgery, gimmicks, creams, gadgets, and other “weight loss” remedies, we would be a far healthier nation, and medical and insurance costs could be greatly reduced for all.

Running and walking can help! People must hear and understand this.

Calories in—calories burned, a simple formula. Active children and adults can get away with consumption of calories if they are engaged in exercise on a regular basis. Running and walking, or the sports that require them, are the simplest and easiest ways to keep the weight down and off.

We all should make the effort to control our diet and to fit in regular exercise. We must generally improve our lifestyle to incorporate exercise and to allow for adequate, balanced nutrition. We must make a united push, and resolve to improve. We must adjust to our technically advanced world and fit in exercise. We must help kids to be more engaged in physical activity, and set examples in both exercise and nutrition. We must provide the opportunities and the facilities to make exercise possible and safe.

This effort should be made by all segments of our community. All individuals can make their choices, but we all live in a complex world. Better health is the business of all members of a community—all groups within that community. Employers should be involved in terms of the availability of showers and changing facilities, as well as nutritious food; likewise schools and colleges. Governments at all levels have responsibilities to provide safe walkways, trails, and bikeways, not just roadways for automobiles. And we must demand these as absolutely necessary. We must also help as parents and grandparents, friends, relatives, insurers, and media. An epidemic requires the response of every segment of society.

The Facts of the Matter

  1. Two of every three Americans are overweight or obese—31% obese, and 64% either overweight or obese (over 60 million and 130 million respectively).
  2. Americans spend about $120 billion on fast food each year—more than on higher education.
  3. Medical problems related to obesity cost $130 billion per year. This does not include the higher cost of health insurance for everyone as a result of these expenditures.
  4. The average lifespan of Americans today is 77.6 years (74.7 for men and 80.3 for women). However, the children of today may see their lifespan decrease for the first time in our history due to obesity and sedentary living, and despite medical and pharmacological advances.
  5. Fewer than 50% of neighborhoods have sidewalks and playgrounds.
  6. Only one in 10 children walks or bikes to school.
  7. Half of Americans 55 to 64 have high blood pressure (and nearly 40% in this group are obese).
  8. In 1985 the average woman wore size 8; today the average is size 14 (and size 8 is bigger than in 1985). The average size/waistline for men has increased even more.
  9. Obesity contributes to the following medical problems: Heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, hypertension, depression, stroke, gall bladder disease, asthma and other respiratory problems, colon cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer, inconspicuous penis, sleep apnea, low back pain and injury, and dyslipidemia.
  10. Over 54% of Americans get little or no exercise.
  11. Nearly all “planned” suburban communities are isolated by roadways, and require driving for any purpose—shopping, restaurants, schools, work, recreation, and libraries.
  12. Americans spent more than $43 billion on “weight loss” products in 2005.
  13. Gastric bypass surgery is becoming big business—and dangerous. It costs about $14,000, and 3% of patients die within a year, and as high as 12% of older people. Still, and estimated 27,000 tried it last year.
  14. The percentage of obese adults has doubled since 1980, and tripled for children.
  15. The number of morbidly obese individuals has quadrupled in 15 years, while super obesity has quintupled. Even the obese are getting fatter on average.
  16. The relative cost per calorie of food has decreased (especially fast food) leading to an increase in consumption. The cost of electronic toys has also decreased dramatically.

If the Problem and the Solution are so Obvious, then Why?
Many obese individuals do not see themselves as obese. They may admit to being overweight or “big-boned”. But in today’s marketing mad world, they also see themselves as only one bottle of diet pills, one magic diet, or one home exercise gadget away from a normal, trimmer self. Of course, the fantasy fix never happens. Perhaps it will happen, “soon”.

We know there is a serious problem here, but why? Enormous lifestyle changes have come about because of technology and the marketing and distribution of new food and snack products. Obesity increased dramatically in the last two decades and nearly one in every three Americans is obese. It has increased most rapidly among the younger groups and older, those 29 and younger and 55 to 64. The causes are simple enough—physical inactivity and a much higher caloric intake.

In most cases, the problem is caused by a series of choices made in our increasingly materialistic and rushed society. It is a giant SUV world of over-consumption—energy, clothing, and gadgets of all kinds. Drive through windows abound. And the problem is related to many other societal ills—crime, drugs, and environmental degradation.

There are fewer and fewer “family” meals in the traditional sense, or meals prepared at home with nutrition in mind. The traditional family dinner has never guaranteed proper nutrition, but it is much closer to the ideal than “fast food” alternatives; or worse, a series of junk food snacks. Many of today’s snacks, including “fat free”, provide little or no nutrition while supplying loads of “empty” calories. Fad diets are a joke, and a symptom of our general belief in an easy fix for a tremendously complex problem.

In the last twenty years the average caloric intake of males has increased a whopping 15 %, while the average caloric of females is up a super-size 10%. Those percentages grow in importance when you consider that the baseline was already much higher than the average need for calories. Those additional calories all go to fat. Compounding the problem is the stark reality that we burn many fewer calories, so there is a double-edged problem of gigantic proportions.

Running and walking can help! More people must hear and understand this.

For the average person, there seems to be less and less opportunity to burn calories. It is very simple arithmetic, of course. If you take in more calories than you burn, those extra calories turn to fat—period. We ride on escalators, elevators, moving “walkways”, riding mowers, golf carts, shuttle buses, planes, trains, and automobiles. We sit in front of several types of tubes watching more and more television and videos. We eat and drink while doing so. How can anyone be surprised that there is an epidemic?

In schools a sedentary lifestyle and overweight condition for any student contributes to a lower ability to learn in any academic discipline, as does the lack of proper nutrition. Fewer and fewer kids walk to school, even when they live within walking distance. Very few ride bikes. True, there are safety concerns. And many communities do not invest in proper walkways or walking/biking/running trails. But it is also laziness and guilt which forces busy parents into driving kids to school. Many students drive themselves.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “The American lifestyle of convenience and inactivity has had a devastating toll on every segment of society, particularly on children.” Research shows that 60% of overweight 5 to 10-year-old children already have at least one risk factor for heart disease. The fact is that kids are much more sedentary today—much more “virtual”. Real, healthy, physical activity is lacking or non-existent.

The barrage marketing of innumerable snack foods and fast foods, and the available money to purchase them, add tremendously to the problem. Our out-of-control consumerism is a most evident problem when it comes to nutrition and physical exercise.

Running can help!
We are on a socially and economically devastating collision course—an increasingly older population, a significantly heavier population, and a more numerous population. Health care, long term and short term, needs a wholesale change and an emphasis on prevention.

Only one thing can change it all quickly, inexpensively, and nationally, and that one thing is exercise, especially running. Change is possible, and the one thing we have complete control over is our exercise and fitness level. Improve that level through running, and all society benefits.

Promotion of the Sport
Running IS one of the simplest and one of the most healthful of human activities. It provides more health and fitness benefits for less cost in both time and money than any other athletic activity. Given all the tremendous advantages and ease of access, why are more people not involved? There are many committed adherents, but they do not fully explain and promote the tremendous value of their experiences. Many runners celebrate their sport, especially at the change of seasons and special events, but do so privately, personally.

The only socially responsible thing to do is to promote running and fitness generally. Running needs ambassadors and promoters to explain and witness for the sport and its benefits. Who can do that more effectively than the existing group of runners who are fully dedicated personally? They know the sport, know what it can do, and are walking, running, breathing examples of the running lifestyle.

Committed runners must be more vocal in explaining and recruiting by simply convincing those close to them of the value and necessity of the running life.

Running parents must become involved in schools to insure physical activity is included in daily programs. We must question the food served in schools, and push to eliminate snack foods and vending machines. All runners must push at all levels for sidewalks, bike paths, tracks, open space, and programs to promote running and exercise for all. We must eat less, and exercise more.

We have got to change--individually and societally. We have to provide activities to get kids away from TV and computer games, and get them and ourselves out the door and exercise. We must quit being lazy in the preparation of food, limit intake of calories to a sensible level. We must run-hike-bike as families and groups of friends. We must demand more and better from our local, state, and federal government agencies to combat this problem with information, funding, facilities, and programs. Running is ideal, and we can.

For additional information, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Website at Be sure to see U.S. Obesity Trends in Adults, and in children, and many related articles from the Journal of the AMA, as well as the National Center for Health Statistics.



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