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Fitness and Obesity Trends to Watch for in 2012: It's Not a Small World After All

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By 2020, four out of five of your friends, coworkers, family members and neighbors will be overweight or obese, and half of them will be diabetic or prediabetic.

Less than 5 percent of Americans enjoy ideal cardiovascular health, and today's teens will die younger of heart disease than people of prior generations. According to Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the current generation of teens -- characterized by high blood sugar, surplus weight, poor eating habits, smoking and limited exercise -- are the unhealthiest in our history. Dr. Jones bluntly predicts, "Their future is bleak."

Public health officials joylessly report another first place: Obesity has replaced smoking as the leading cause of preventable death.

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Photo courtesy of Sanja Gjenero

Today's reality, however, does not dictate the future. Here are trends and predictions that can create a positive turning point in the battle of the bulge:

Exercise Trends

  • Whole-life training, encompassing a comprehensive and holistic approach to changing one's lifestyle to achieve optimum health, is expanding in fitness facilities. A multidisciplinary approach (involving nutritionists, psychologists, physical therapists and personal trainers) will continue to support health-conscious fitness club members.
  • Seniors are rediscovering the athlete within. For example, in October 2011, Fauja Singh, a 100-year-old runner, completed a full-distance marathon in Canada. Since the early 1990s, participation for those over age 45 has grown in 21 sports and fitness activities (ranging from basketball to bowling, from mountain and rock climbing to ice hockey and from tackle football to in-line skating).
  • At a time when concern about rising health-care costs is growing, exercise is becoming the go-to miracle treatment. For example, walking has been found to be more effective than stents or medication in the treatment of peripheral artery disease. Regular exercise, which maintains the flow of blood to the brain, is also touted as a way to reduce the risk of dementia. Even patients with fibromyalgia, a difficult-to-treat disease, respond positively to exercise. And researchers assert that a brisk daily walk of at least 30 minutes lowers the risk for breast and colon cancers.

Food Trends

  • According to a national survey conducted by the Calorie Control Council, over half of all adult Americans (54 percent) are trying to lose weight, and the majority are combining calorie restriction with exercise. Most of those trying to lose weight (92 percent) are unwilling to follow restrictive diets such as the Dukan or Atkins diet. Instead, they are eating smaller portions, eating more low-calorie foods and cutting back on sugar by consuming sugar-free foods and beverages.
  • Protein, not sugar, is the best remedy for midafternoon slumps. Scientists report that when compared to sugar, nutrients found in proteins improved alertness and energy expenditure.
  • A more balanced dietary program is replacing the old approach in which a single food, beverage or ingredient is blamed for obesity. For example, 10 years ago, dieters avoided fat in any form. However, this big fat myth has been replaced with distinctions among fats (trans fat, saturated fat and unsaturated fat). Other formerly demonized foods, such as eggs and butter, have been redeemed as nutritionally valuable when eaten in moderation.
  • Recommendations for changes to food product labels have emerged from a study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Although testing of various symbols and icons still needs to occur, front-of-package labeling will likely include calorie count plus information on sugars, sodium and saturated and trans fats.

Institutional Shifts

  • Studies that demonstrate the relationship between poor nutrition and lowered academic performance are fueling the scratch cooking movement. Boosted by the popularity of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution television series, school lunch makeover programs are invigorating local communities by creating opportunities for sustainable local agriculture and, as a byproduct, promoting a healthier environment.
  • School lunch makeovers are part of a larger effort to cultivate food literacy. For example, Lynn Walters's online program, Cooking with Kids, grew out of the efforts of a local student nutrition advisory council to improve school food. Today, more than 4,000 prekindergarten through sixth grade students in 10 schools participate in the program.
  • Hard-pressed consumers are cutting back on expensive organic food, but they are patronizing farmers markets and pick-your-own food farms. Their appeal: Consumers can frequently find better-tasting produce at lower prices than at chain markets.
  • Community collaboration is expanding access to fitness facilities and programs in gyms, parks and recreation centers for residents. Business, government, service organizations, employers and medical professionals are joining forces to reduce obesity. Local organized walking groups, such as the Just Walk: A Walk with a Doc program in Ohio, have expanded beyond city and state boundaries. Communities seeking to organize weight-loss competitions can use free websites, for example, www.weightlosswars.com, to jump-start their group program.

Research and Technology

  • To shrink waistlines, consumers are increasing their use of online programs and applications. For example, they can track calories, record exercise, get nutrition counseling and gain emotional support from peers online. They can even compete for cash prizes for weight loss.
  • Technological advances now allow scientists to study the function of cells and organisms at the molecular level. The emerging field of metabolomics will provide the key to understanding the complex relationship between nutrition and metabolism that in turn can lead to treatments, particularly for type 2 diabetes.
  • Lack of willpower as the primary cause of obesity is losing credibility. "We're slaves to our environment," says David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell, as he explains the rising level of obesity. Cheap food prices, ease of access to unhealthy food and seeing others eat are powerful stimulants that erode willpower. Even the size of the package from which food is taken influences the amount eaten. Dr. Levitsky's insight makes managing one's food environment critical to losing weight or to avoid gaining weight.
  • Researchers continue to seek a safe, effective and sustainable way to help individuals lose weight. Adipotide, a new drug initially developed for the treatment of cancer, triggered an 11 percent weight loss in a small sample of monkeys. Side effects included kidney complications.

Rising hunger and food insecurity in the midst of an epidemic of obesity seems counterintuitive, yet about 48.8 million Americans face this situation daily. The number of families receiving food assistance increased by nearly a third last year.

Equally counterintuitive -- given the high percentage of individuals who will suffer from the health complications resulting from obesity -- is the prediction that Americans will continue to live longer. Life expectancy in 1915 was age 54. By 1967, the age increased to 70. Today's average lifespan in the United States is 78, and experts predict that within 50 years, the age will rise to 100.

Without a doubt, our expanding knowledge of the underlying issues of fitness and obesity are being reshaped by research made possible by advances in technology. In responding to the fast-changing flow of information, one thing is certain: Flexibility and balance in our lives will continue to be essential.

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