The Obesity Solution: How Exercise Science Approaches Wellness
17 Min Read
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 (39.8 percent, or 93.3 million people) were obese in 2016. In fact, obesity rates doubled in America among both adults and children between 1980 and 2000 alone. The national State of Obesity reports that this rate has remained consistent through 2018, with seven states’ populations exceeding 35% obese persons, and 29 more states topping 30%.
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, rising to “a staggering $190.2 billion or nearly 21% of annual medical spending in the United States” in 2010, as reported by the National League of Cities. Science Daily confirmed that the medical costs of obese individuals rose from 6.13 percent in 2001 to 7.91 percent in 2015, an increase of 29 percent. These high rates are not limited to adults: The CDC also reported data from 2015–2016 showing that nearly 1 in 5 school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity (in some states, the 2017 childhood obesity numbers reached 22 percent).
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. A quick Amazon.com search for the term “weight loss” results in over 50,000 books, over 40,000 supplements and food items, and over 6,000 sports products. The problem many consumers face is using all of the information and products to fuel long-term weight loss.
Nature vs. Nurture: Potential Causes of Obesity
For decades, as obesity numbers continue to rise, scientists from various disciplines have worked to understand the factors contributing to climbing BMIs and tipping the 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. An article posted by popular fitness blogger Steve Magness explained 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 said. “We likely did not evolve just to survive feast or famine, but also to be able to have enough fitness to survive procurement of food,” he explained. Thus, the main issue is the current environment of humans, in which low activity levels plus high-calorie diets result in increased fat storage, diabetes, and related complications. As Magness put it, “It is the mismatch between our genetic programming and our environment which has given rise to the obesity epidemic.”
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 to combat both childhood and adult obesity.
The various childhood programs established through federal funding have a common goal: for children to grow up healthier, which results 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 food options 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 investment 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
In 2015, the Prevention and Public Health Fund allocated a considerable portion of its budget to targeting obesity. A budget of $73 million was dedicated to diabetes prevention at the state and local level, supporting the National Diabetes Prevention Program. It also dedicated $35 million to “nutrition, physical activity and obesity base activities,” including intervention development, evaluation, policy change, social marketing and more. In 2017, the program distributed $931,000,000 to various agencies, with a considerable amount going to prevention and care for obesity-related conditions.
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 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 Solution
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. The ideal exercise prescription for obese patients was outlined in the third edition of Clinical Exercise Physiology. 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.
Both exercise scientists and kinesiologists know the importance of maintaining a healthy body weight and can identify strategies to help their patients meet weight loss goals. As trained professionals, their exercise-based approach to combating obesity is backed by scientific evidence. As Tucker pointed 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 2014 recipient of the Bobbi Lambrecht Scholarship at Concordia University, St. Paul, uses 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 a type two diabetic. I knew what was in store if I did not change … I decided to become a trainer.” As of 2014, Edwards planned “to become a master’s-level athlete in CrossFit and with USA Weightlifting, and to show other late-blooming athletes that it is never too late to chase your dreams and thrive.” As a fitness professional, Edwards had 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 said.
According to the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America), “Kinesiology is a non-teaching major that has emerged in response to concerns about the lack of physical activity, obesity, and increase risks of developing diseases. The kinesiology field provides the opportunity to study the scientific basis of sport performance.” A diverse array of career options are available with a focus in exercise science or kinesiology.
What Is Exercise Science?
Because exercise science is still 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:
- Exercise physiology/kinesiology
- Exercise psychology
- Cardiac rehabilitation
- Athletic training
- Fitness for special population groups
Exercise science 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. In 2019, The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a 13 percent growth rate (faster than average) for the exercise science field through the year 2026, and, “Demand may rise as hospitals emphasize exercise and preventive care to help patients recover from cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases and improve their overall health.”
The Science of Weight Loss
If you feel like your body is overweight and want to shed a few pounds, you are not alone.
A 2018 poll from Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans would like to lose weight. But losing weight is not easy, especially as we get older. It takes motivation, lifestyle changes, and sometimes even a trip to the doctor for us to see results. There are three main aspects to weight loss: nutrition, sleep, and exercise. When you combine attention to all three, you are more likely to see results. The science of weight loss proves that those three aspects play a major role in how our body stores fat and how we can remove it. Better eating habits, getting a good night’s sleep, and regular exercise have shown positive results across the board in both scientific studies and personal anecdotes from across the country.
Maintaining a proper diet can have a major impact on your overall health and can help you lose weight. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that the typical American diet exceeds the recommended intake levels of calories from solid fats and added sugars, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat. Further, about 90 percent of Americans eat more sodium than is recommended as part of a healthy diet, and reducing sodium intake would save up to $20 billion a year in total nationwide medical costs.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends a healthy eating plan that “emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.” In terms of proteins, it recommends lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, while limiting trans fats, sodium and added sugars. Portion control is also an important part of a healthy diet, making sure that you do not overeat. The institute also recommends that for those looking to lose 1–1.5 lbs. per week, daily caloric intake should be reduced by 500–750 calories. Drinking water before and during meals can also help with weight loss, as well as maintaining a proper diet. A study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that drinking about 17 ounces of water helped boost metabolism by 24–30 percent over a 60 to 90–minute period, and that drinking that same amount of water a half hour before eating helped dieters eat fewer calories and lose 44 percent more weight.
There are also many different kinds of diets that you can try to help lose weight. These include:
- Keto: The ketogenic diet is low in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and high in fat. It is based on the premise that the human body was designed to run more efficiently burning fat instead of sugar, which is in carbs.
- Paleo: This diet is high in proteins (meat, fish, nuts) and vegetables (leafy greens, seasonal veggies) and seeds. Anything processed, such as pasta, cereal, or candy is out. The premise of the paleo diet is to eat as the cavepeople did.
- South Beach: This diet claims that it has the answer for you to have your own South Beach body. It is high in proteins and healthy fats, while low in types of carbohydrates, though you do not have to completely cut them out of your diet.
- Vegan: This is a diet based on plant-based foods and beverages, eliminating all animal-based products, including eggs and dairy products. It’s not necessarily low carb, as you can still eat processed grains like bread and pasta, but it cuts out the animal-based proteins.
- Dukan: The Dukan Diet is high in protein, low fat, and low carb. It’s designed around a permanent lifestyle change that helps you reach your “true weight” and keep it there.
In addition to dieting, adding regular exercise to your daily routine can help you lose weight. There are many different ways you can exercise, depending on your body type, how much you want to lose, and whether you want to gain muscle as well. Multiple studies have shown positive results from exercise. Through the release of hormones like endorphins, exercise has been shown to reduce stress, increase productivity at work, and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, among other diseases.
In terms of weight loss, one of the most effective forms of exercise to help burn body fat is cardiovascular, or cardio, which includes running, walking, cycling, swimming, and any activity that gets your heart moving above the regular resting heart rate. Strength training, aerobics, and weightlifting can all lead to weight loss. A Healthline study on 141 obese people found that participants who burned 400 calories with cardio exercise five times a week lost 4.3 percent of their body weight, and participants who burned 600 calories, five days a week lost 5.7 percent of their body weight.
Thankfully, you do not have to do this alone. Both online and at gyms across the nation, there are weight loss programs you can join that will help motivate you to reach your goal.
More than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep every night, according to a survey from 2016 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. Adults 26–64 need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but when we do not get enough sleep, we increase the risk for bad health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, the CDC said. Our infographic on the science of sleep helps explain how a lack of sleep leads to mood and behavioral issues the next day, as well as how to remedy the situation. By sleeping well, you are letting your brain recharge, rest, and get ready for optimal performance the next day.
Getting a good night’s sleep can also help with weight loss. Insufficient sleep impacts hunger and fullness hormones, two of which are called ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin tells the brain that the body craves food and it is time to eat. When we have not received enough sleep, our bodies produce more ghrelin. Similarly, the leptin hormone tells the brain when we have had enough. However, when we are sleep deprived, leptin levels lower, prohibiting a strong signal to get to the brain. Getting a full night of sleep helps keep our hormones in order.
Ways to Improve Your Metabolism
When combined, eating a proper diet with exercise and enough sleep can help you improve your metabolism, which will help you burn more calories. According to NASA bed-rest studies, “within a couple days of non-activity, the metabolism becomes inflexible.” By exercising daily, you can help jumpstart your metabolism and even improve it overtime. If your metabolism is slow, it will take time, but it is possible to improve it. Building muscle can also help your body burn a few more calories throughout the day, but aerobic exercises will push the metabolism even more.
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. This comprehensive background of study prepares students for a wide variety of health-related, exercise-focused careers. These programs expose students to key topic areas in exercise science such as:
- Athletic training
- Exercise physiology
- Human growth
- Sports management
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.
Learn More About Exercise Science
If you want to learn more about the science of weight loss, then enroll today in Concordia St. Paul’s online exercise science degree. This degree program will teach you a greater understanding of kinesiology, exercise physiology, movement science, fitness, and wellness. You will be taught by knowledgeable faculty in courses designed with your success in mind, and you can take advantage of our asynchronous, fully-online format, allowing you to balance your education with your already busy life.