More Exercise, More Obesity, Twice the Guidelines!

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Frustrated? Confused? Confrustrated?

More people than ever are obese. More people than ever are meeting government guidelines for exercise, and the government guidelines for physical activity just doubled from what they used to be. 

Confused? Frustrated? Confrustrated?

When I read stories about health, fitness, and obesity in the media, I understand why many people throw their hands up in disgust at the confusing, seemingly conflicting, and difficult to decipher.

What’s going on?  I’ll explain, and I’ll do it briefly!  (In fact, if you don’t even want any more details on where these confusing numbers come from, just skip to the clarity.)

(Note: I’m using the numbers for the US because those are most readily available to the point I’m making about the three types of stats, but the trends apply to most “Westernized” cultures.)

More Obesity

The numbers just keep going up. According to the Centers for Disease Control stats, 39.8% of the adult population in the US is obese.  The numbers continue to creep upward year after year.  It gets easier to move less, and exercise is mostly seen as the unappealing obligation it always has (more on this below).

More Exercise

More Americans than ever before met federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic activity at 54.8% in 2017. (National Center for Health Statistics) Yay.  That is good news.  But there’s still the problem of #1 above.  And in 2018, the guidelines for physical activity were updated (see below) so who knows how much that 54.8% would drop based on the new guidelines.

Doubled Exercise Guidelines

If you thought it was hard to get enough exercise in each week when the guidelines were 150 minutes weekly of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, it will seem nearly impossible now.  In 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated the physical activity guidelines, which were last updated in 2008.  (If you have lots of time on your hands, and want to add boredom to your confusion, you can read the full report here.)  Now, adults need 150-300 minutes weekly of moderate or 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.


Your old goal is now the new minimum.  That feeling of accomplishment you used to get from 150 minutes a week is now just getting you started.  

These guidelines are not helpful to a large majority of people in any practical way.  First, we don’t track our physical activity weekly.  And 4 days off will beat 3 days on every time. We need to be active more days than we aren’t.  And what if you do some moderate and some vigorous? How do you blend the times of the two types of intensities?    Further, the guidelines go on to add you should do at least two days per week of muscle-strengthening exercises. “At least.” So 7 days would be ideal? No, but the guidelines don’t help you figure that out. 

Confusion Clarified

How do we make sense of all of this?

The obesity numbers continue to go up while more people are exercising.  This is easier than it looks to sort out. 

  • The overall total number of people exercising consistently at enough intensity for change is small. 
  • For obesity, our day-to-day lives and our physical environment becomes increasingly obesity-promoting.  And exercise isn’t changing – it is just as unappealing as ever. 

I read a recent Washington Post article that detailed how many clubs and equipment manufacturers are starting to offer treadmill classes and some equipment and apps are offering streaming workouts with instructors, with one of the benefits being the “social connection” they provide.  (Amusingly, the article does detail how the first treadmills were used to punish prisoners in England in the late 1800’s.) 

No. No. No. Wrong.

It’s 2019. Can we really be foolish enough to believe that joining a workout where you are alone on your treadmill (or bike or rower or whatever) with the “social connection” being a live stream to an instructor-led class!?  We’ve been more digitally “connected” than ever yet we find ourselves increasingly lacking in real, human connections.  This has been explored by countless authors and scientists at this point. You cannot fake social interaction.  Your brain doesn’t get the same lift from a virtual connection as it does from a real one. 

What Do We Make of All This!?

  1. New “connected” forms of workout will only help the 20% or so of the population that was already drawn to traditional modes of fitness in the first place. 
  2. They will not appeal to the ever-growing numbers of obese around the world.
  3. The unhealthy get more unhealthy, while the minority of people who already find traditional fitness actually appealing enough to do it will increasingly have success with it due some new equipment and gadgets. 

Bottom Line

We need a fitness experience that is fun, challenging, engaging, and at the same time provides a real, in-the-flesh human connection.  This is the only way for future success with fitness for the majority.

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