We all know there are compelling reasons to stay physically active (reduce the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension; improve mental health, keep muscles and bones strong—just to name a few). Physical activity also burns calories, an important part of the “calories in—calories out” equation. And, a sedentary lifestyle, as well as our pursuit of finding ways to avoid physical activity (remote controls, parking as close in as possible, escalators and elevators), has been blamed for our collective weight gain.
But wait—isn’t blaming inactivity maybe just another way for the fast food and processed food industry to escape responsibility for the appetizing and calorie-dense foods they produce, advertise and promote?
And, maybe, we don’t like the idea that we just plain eat too much. We would probably all like to believe that (assuming we choose to do so), we can offset what we eat by burning more calories through physical activity—and let the party continue. But let’s be fair . . .
How large a role does physical inactivity actually play in today’s obesity epidemic / crisis? A recent study in Obesity Reviews revealed some interesting insight on the physical activity side of the equation. It found that during the last 17 years only a minority—about a third—of adolescents met the recommended daily levels for physical activity. At the same time, the data shows that American adolescents have not decreased their level of physical activity, and that physical activity levels have actually been stable over the past 17 years. But, and this is the big “but,” the study found that during the same period of time obesity rates in kids had roughly doubled.
Now, on to the nutrition side of the equation.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the relative contributions of food and physical activity to the development of the obesity epidemic. Their finding: The rise in obesity in the United States in the last three decades was virtually all due to increased calorie intake.
We know adults and children are eating about a third of their calories from foods prepared outside the home. We know too, that portion sizes have grown and today Americans consume an average of 250 more calories per day than they did two decades ago. That's 26 extra pounds to burn off every year just to stay even. To burn those pounds, remember, you would have to walk approximately 35 miles to burn 3,500 calories. And, you need a 3,500 calorie deficit to lose just one pound!
So, if we’re playing the “blame game” there’s plenty to go around. We can blame the food industry for creating and marketing unhealthy foods; we can blame the economy (in part) for our dependence on “convenience” and high-calorie comfort foods; we can blame our employers for our stress and lack of free time (which of course we would use to prepare fresh, healthy meals at home); we can blame restaurants for larger portion sizes and calorie-intense options loaded with sodium; we can blame the schools for fat-laden school lunches and doing away with or reducing physical education . . . and the list goes on.
But, what happens if we blame ourselves? Well, then wouldn’t we have to hold ourselves responsible for doing something about it?