The Obesity Solution: How Exercise Science Approaches Wellness

Posted March 20, 2015 | By Tricia Hussung

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The rise in obesity has reached record levels in recent years, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that more than one-third of American adults (34.9 percent, or 78.6 million) are obese. In fact, obesity rates doubled in America among both adults and children between 1980 and 2000 alone. And the resulting complications are costly. The estimated annual medical cost of complications related to obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008, and the medical costs of obese individuals were almost $1,500 higher than those of normal weight. These high rates are not limited to adults: The CDC also reports that approximately 17 percent, or 12.7 million, children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years old are classified as obese.

This dramatic rise in obesity in America may be surprising, because as a culture, our awareness and understanding of the effects of diet and exercise on both weight and overall health is at an all-time high. According to a recent article from The Science of Sport contributor Ross Tucker, Ph.D., a quick Amazon.com search for the term “weight loss” results in 83,798 books. “This market is enormous, a multi-billion dollar industry, and it borrows from science to pitch a dizzying array of exercise machines, programs and diet plans at consumers,” Tucker explains. The problem many consumers face is using all of that information and products to fuel long-term weight loss.

Nature vs. Nurture: Potential Causes of Obesity

For decades, as obesity numbers continued to rise, scientists from various disciplines have worked to understand the factors contributing to climbing BMIs and tipping scales. Geneticist James Neel proposed the “thrifty gene hypothesis” in 1962, in an attempt to partially explain the increased global rates of Type 2 Diabetes. His theory proposes that humans, in a sense, evolved to be obese. This hypothesis has become the basis for much of the genetic research into obesity.

A recent article posted by popular fitness blogger Steve Magness explains this hypothesis: “Through natural selection we evolved to be efficient at food storage and utilization. … However, during the last century the transition to an overabundance of food and limited physical activity has created a situation where our previously advantageous thrifty genes now make us susceptible to diabetes and obesity.” Neel’s thrifty gene hypothesis draws from the feast-famine cycle and its relation to exercise, Magness says. “We likely did not evolve just to survive feast or famine, but also to be able to have enough fitness to survive procurement of foods,” he explains.

Thus, the main issue is the current environment of humans, in which low activity levels combine with high-calorie diets to result in increased fat storage, diabetes and related complications. As Magness puts it, “It is the mismatch between our genetic programming and our environment which has given rise to the obesity epidemic.”

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Changing Our Future

National Initiatives to Combat Obesity

As the occurrence of obesity becomes more frequent in Americans of all age groups, the federal government has taken steps toward prevention and weight reduction by establishing a variety of national initiatives. Although some of these programs aim to combat childhood obesity, initiatives that target adults are also part of the national movement toward prevention and wellness.

Childhood-Based Initiatives

Lets Move LogoThe various childhood programs established through federal funding have a common goal: for children to grow up healthier, resulting in both lower occurrences of adult obesity and less obesity in Americans overall. In line with the principles of exercise science, Let’s Move! is one such initiative. It was founded by First Lady Michelle Obama and is dedicated to “solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.” Let’s Move! features comprehensive strategies to establish healthy habits early in the lives of America’s children. The program works to provide parents with the information they need to establish a healthy environment for their children and support them in their journey to better health, through both exercise and nutrition.

Two of the specific strategies used by Let’s Move! are related to improved nutrition and food quality. The first aims to provide healthier foods in schools so that students have access to better choices while they learn. The second works to ensure that “every family has access to healthy, affordable food.” And of course, as the name suggests, Let’s Move! also promotes increased physical activity among children.

Public Awareness Initiatives

Michelle Obama and Tom Vilsack, the USDA secretary, also introduced a new federal food initiative in June of 2011. MyPlate helps consumers make healthier food choices by helping them understand how to build a plate with the right proportions of different food groups at mealtimes. The MyPlate icon “emphasizes the fruit, vegetable, grains, protein foods and dairy groups … the building blocks of a healthy diet.”

Another initiative at the national level is the Prevention and Public Health Fund. The Affordable Care Act established this federal fund to “provide expanded and sustained national investments in prevention and public health, to improve health outcomes and to enhance care quality.” The fund invests in a wide variety of evidence-based programs, including:

  • Community and clinical prevention initiatives
  • Research surveillance and tracking
  • Public health infrastructure
  • Public health workforce and training

Among its many plans for the year 2015, the Prevention and Public Health Fund has allocated a considerable portion of its budget to targeting obesity. An intended budget of $73 million will be dedicated to diabetes prevention at the state and local level, supporting the National Diabetes Prevention Program. It also plans to dedicate $35 million to “nutrition, physical activity and obesity base activities,” including intervention development, evaluation, policy change, social marketing and more.

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Moving Matters

The Role of Exercise in Controlling Obesity

Although nutrition plays a central role in the prevention of obesity and the establishment of healthy lifestyles, it is important to recognize another key to overall health: exercise. It is widely known that regular exercise helps reduce body fat and protect against the chronic diseases associated with obesity. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the following are some of the specific ways that regular exercise reduces risk of obesity and assists in weight loss:

  • Exercise is proven to both prevent and manage high blood pressure.
  • It raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol while lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — “bad” cholesterol.
  • Regular physical activity also decreases the amount of dangerous plaques in the artery walls, allowing for proper blood flow.

The ACSM also suggests an ideal exercise program. The first component is low-intensity aerobic activity occurring four or five days a week for a duration of 30 to 60 minutes. In addition to this aerobic activity, weight and resistance training is also recommended. Weight training builds muscle mass while raising the muscle-to-fat ratio, which increases the amount of calories that an individual burns when they are at rest.

Exercise Science May Be the Obesity SolutionNutrition and Exercise for Wellness Venn Diagram

Though generally healthy individuals can usually begin an exercise program on their own, obese individuals often need close supervision and carefully planned approaches. This is where exercise science and kinesiology professionals play a vital role. In the third edition of Clinical Exercise Physiology, the ideal exercise prescription for obese patients is outlined. The overall goal when working with obese individuals is to focus on expending the greatest amount of calories possible in a set period of time.

Especially in obese patients, exercise mode selection is key for reducing the risk of injury, though preexisting musculoskeletal problems can exist in healthy individuals as well. It is the responsibility of exercise science professionals to “assess any painful conditions and make recommendations to avoid this type of pain.” Because they are trained in exercise prescription and understand the functions of the human body, as well as common exercise-induced injuries, exercise science professionals can adjust exercise modes and intensity to fit the unique needs of each patient.

A Passion for Health and Wellness

Exercise science and kinesiologists understand the importance of maintaining a healthy body weight and can identify strategies to help their patients meet weight loss goals. And as trained professionals, their exercise-based approach to combating obesity is backed by scientific evidence. As Tucker points out, “Numerous studies have found that exercise is beneficial for weight loss, and crucially, weight maintenance, as well as health of physically active people. A vast body of research exists to show how exercise improves weight maintenance, working hand in hand with diet and other lifestyle choices to help people get to, and then stay at, an optimal body weight.”

Improving the Lives of Unhealthy Americans

Individuals in the exercise science field have the unique opportunity to combat obesity directly, through their one-on-one work with obese individuals. For many, a personal experience with the adverse effects of obesity on health led to their pursuit of the career. Jerome Edwards, a recent recipient of the Bobbi Lambrecht Scholarship at Concordia University, St. Paul, plans to use his exercise science degree to improve the health of his clients.

His parents’ struggles with weight and cardiovascular illness initiated Edwards’ passion for wellness: “About 10 years ago, my father had a heart attack. My mom had already been diagnosed as type two diabetic. I knew what was in store if I did not change. … I decided to become a trainer.” Edwards plans to earn a master’s degree in exercise science and “show other late-blooming athletes that it is never too late to … thrive.”

Firsthand Results

Jerome Edwards on Fitness and HealthAs a fitness professional, Edwards has already seen for himself the effects of exercise on health. “My pivotal moment was when an elderly female client said, ‘I want to be able to get out of my chair without holding on to something for help.’ We trained for a year before she left to have knee replacement surgery. Months later she returned and performed a proper squat without assistance,” he says.

Edwards understands the important role that trained exercise scientists can play in preventing obesity as well. “I imagine the possibilities had I been introduced to my inner athlete when I was younger. Children should recognize their athletic potential sooner rather than later, and be able to grow in a safe and nurturing environment with sound instruction. It is a privilege to help people the way that I do. Everyone wants to live a long, healthy life. I believe it can be achieved through fitness,” he says.

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What Is Exercise Science?

Because exercise science is a relatively new field, it is helpful to establish definitions to fully grasp the important role that trained exercise science professionals play in combating obesity. According to the National Library of Medicine, exercise science is the scientific study of human movement, performed to maintain or improve physical fitness. Exercise science seeks “applied solutions to health problems related to physical inactivity and aims to understand and promote individual and public health and wellbeing through evidence-based physical activity interventions.” It includes several subfields:

  • Biomechanics
  • Exercise physiology
  • Exercise psychology
  • Cardiac rehabilitation
  • Athletic training
  • Fitness for special population groups

It addresses biological responses to physical activity in the body. As fitness experts Tucker and Edwards pointed out, exercise science professionals are responsible for conditioning individuals to higher levels of overall fitness, which results in reduced body fat and overall body weight. These specialists are on the frontlines of the battle against obesity in America, which explains why they are in such high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 19 percent growth for the exercise science field through the year 2022, a rate that is faster than the national average.

Exercise Science Education and Careers

Like Tucker and Edwards, many individuals with a passion for health and fitness choose to pursue a career in exercise science. A comprehensive education in exercise science allows students to become part of the obesity solution. Degree programs in an online format also give students increased flexibility and affordability, especially in the case of adult learners.

At Concordia University, St. Paul, students can choose from online exercise science degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level. These programs expose students to key topic areas in exercise science such as:

  • Aging
  • Athletic training
  • Biomechanics
  • Chiropractic
  • Exercise physiology
  • Human growth
  • Sports management

This comprehensive background of study prepares students for a wide variety of health-related, exercise-focused careers.

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Take the Next StepExercise Science Career Guide

To learn more about exercise science options, download a free exercise science career guide from Concordia University, St. Paul. This resource explores in-demand careers in the field, including salary information and employment outlooks. Download the guide today to get started.