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Get Down to Basics (Part 2)

Jun 27, 2006

Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM shares more of her new best seller, The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan. This week read: Get Down to Basics (Part 2) The Real Causes of Unfitness Today

SheriStep 1: Get Down to Basics (Part 2)
The Real Causes of Unfitness Today

By Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM


The real causes of unfitness today

Nearly half of all American adults report that they are not active at all, while 70 percent aren’t moderately active enough to meet the recommended thirty minutes a day “most days of the week.” Why are we all so sedentary? Blame it on the industrial revolution, and you won’t be far off the mark. We’re the modern-day “hunter-gatherers” who no longer do either. Moreover, in the past half century, Americans have experienced a rise in sedentary, leisure-time pursuits unparalleled in human history. Labor-saving devices like dishwashers, remote controls, and personal computers have left most of us sitting on our (ever-expanding) derrieres more than ever. When was the last time you shopped on the Internet instead of walking in the mall? If your answer is “today,” you are not alone. Not only do most American homes have at least one TV, but most also have one or more computers—usually with Internet access. In this fast paced world of ours, is it any wonder that we often choose to let our fingers do the walking (on the keyboard) instead of our legs? And who twenty years ago could ever have imagined playing an Internet-linked video game on your cell phone? As a result of all these “improvements” to our way of life, we have become a society of unfit and fat people.

Of course, diet also plays a dramatic role in the current unfit state of most Americans. Not only have portion sizes increased during the past several decades, but we have also become entrenched in a “fast-food” mentality, leading us to expect and demand an ever greater selection of fast-food restaurants and low-nutrition, prepackaged food ready for consumption in supersized, “bargain” portions. And all this despite decreasing our energy needs with sedentary behaviors! We all tend to move around less after we gain excess weight from poor food choices, and the ensuing inactivity then causes us to gain more weight and become even less physically active—creating a vicious cycle. So, despite the proven and publicized health benefits of physical activity, the vast majority of us remain sedentary, unfit, and overweight.

We’re even fatter than we think

Only a seemingly lucky minority of the American population is thin these days. Nearly a third of adults are obese, and more than two-thirds are overweight, leaving only a minority—one in three—anywhere near to supposedly “ideal” body weights. Without major, sweeping lifestyle changes, though, it appears unlikely that this obesity epidemic will be curtailed anytime soon. In fact, it appears that we’re simply getting used to rising numbers of people with excess body fat. As a nation, we’re also being tricked into thinking that we’re thinner than we really are. For example, did you know that clothing manufacturers secretly changed their sizes in the past decade by making a woman’s dress size 10 today the equivalent of size 14 from a few decades ago? New sports stadiums are being constructed with wider seats, and Nike resized its size “small” sports bra to fit a bust that is two inches larger.

What really happens to the “couch potatoes”

The best way to avoid excess weight gain in the first place is to exercise regularly. A new study just concluded that America’s youth are getting fat mainly because they don’t move around enough, and the same is true for adults. As for the physiology of inactivity, a great deal of scientific evidence links a lack of physical activity directly to defects in the action of insulin at the level of your cells (primarily muscle and fat cells). Inside the muscle cells themselves, the ability to utilize oxygen declines with inactivity, resulting in a lower capacity for aerobic exercise and a reduction in your overall fitness—which in turn makes you feel less like exercising.

Although a lot of sitting around for any reason is unhealthy, TV watching appears to be especially detrimental, because your rate of energy expenditure (metabolic rate) is even lower while watching TV than while engaging in other sedentary activities, such as playing board games or even reading. Many pediatricians are now recommending that children be restricted from spending more than one to two hours a day using TVs and computers combined. Kids who watch a lot of TV are also more likely to have bad eating habits, such as munching on unhealthy, high-calorie snacks while watching the many junk food commercials targeting youth. The negative effects of excess TV time apparently last through adulthood as well, because the amount of time you spent watching TV during your childhood and adolescence is also directly associated with your risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, poor fitness, smoking, and obesity as an adult.


In two weeks, I will share Part 3 of Step 1 from my latest book, The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan: Living Well and Being Fit with Diabetes, No Matter Your Weight (2006). Information about all of my books, my many articles, my research, and more is available on my web site: www.SheriColberg.com.

Tip for the day: Even a single week of training will improve your insulin action. Add in resistance training for additional benefits and extra gains in muscle mass.

See more features from Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM