The Journal of the American Medical Assoc. released a report earlier this month that puts an exclamation point behind what people in the medical community have known for some time now — that poor diet and lack of physical activity do more than make people fat; they kill people.
Indeed, the report, which focused on a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), concluded that the combination of poor diet and lack of exercise was the second-leading cause of death in the United States in 2000, and that obesity is gaining fast on tobacco as the most serious health risk facing Americans.
“The problem of obesity is really an epidemic, and we need to apply the same tools to combat it as if it were an infectious disease epidemic,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDCP, in announcing the report’s findings. Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, sounded a similar alarm when he called obesity a “public health emergency,” and said the agency was directing new research into the links between obesity, disease, environmental factors that cause sedentary lifestyles, and the body’s metabolism. “We consider this a major threat and will fight it.”
In many ways, the battle is already being fought, and we cite as an encouraging example the Healthy Resolutions program launched at the top of this year by Noble Hospital in Westfield.
The 13-week program, due to conclude early next month, takes dead aim at the two problems cited in the CDCP’s study — poor diet and lack of physical activity — and it encourages people to take control of their bodies.
How? Primarily through education, but also through encouragement and what will hopefully be a blueprint for healthier living.
The Healthy Resolutions program, which had, as one of its early motivations, a desire to enlist more participants in Noble’s annual spring road race, is a community-wide effort designed to encourage people to make lifestyle changes. It started Jan.1 because that’s when many people resolve to make changes.
Noble administrators were expecting maybe a few dozen people to sign up, and instead they found more than a few hundred willing and apparently able to listen and learn about better nutrition and diet.
Participants, who have come in all shapes, sizes, and age groups, started by having measurements taken of their body fat and also their body mass index, or BMI. That’s the number that correlates weight to height and essentially tells people if they have a problem. Sadly, most of us do.
Those in the program are then given some instruction in how to attack those measurements through a combination of diet and exercise. In groups of 20, the participants are taken to the local supermarket and given an aisle-by-aisle tutorial on how to read labels and choose healthier foods.
For many, this is an eye-opening experience because reading labels can be like reading James Joyce — often, you’re not sure what you’ve just read — and people need to learn how to know when the word ‘healthy’ on a loaf of bread really means healthy.
Beyond label reading, the program encourages participants to learn the value of exercise, by incorporating a progressively more intensive workout regimen into their lifestyle. As it is with the nutritional component of the program, the exercise initiative is designed to develop better habits — and this brings us back to the study on obesity in America.
This problem didn’t materialize overnight. It is a byproduct of changing habits and the proliferation of bad habits. Americans do not exercise enough, and they do not pay enough attention to what they eat or how much. The statistics don’t lie, and those in the health care community clearly understand that.
The length of the sign-up sheet for the Healthy Resolutions program shows that area residents may be starting to realize it as well. When we’re talking about obesity, we’re not referring to a larger dress size — we’re referring to health problems that can, and often do, kill people.
As the officials responding to the new obesity report suggested, this is a major threat that needs to be fought. Our community needs more weapons like Noble’s program, which brings the fight into individuals’ kitchens and attacks the common foe with lifestyle changes, not quick fixes.