America is exercising more, but that’s not slowing down the rising obesity rate

Working out well?
Working out well?
Image: Reuters/Krishnendu Halder
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For a third year in a row, a majority of American adults are exercising as much as their government recommends. But that does not appear to be curbing the nation’s obesity rate, which in 2017 reached an all-time high.

Nearly one in three people in America—31.4%—today are obese, according to new data (pdf) published this week (March 15) by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unhealthy weight gain is a key contributors to heart disease, high blood pressure, risk of stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and a recent study showed how people who suffer from being overweight or obese live shorter lives than those who do not.

For years, one of the most robust public health responses to America’s growing weight problem has been to encourage exercise. And people seemed to have listened: today, almost 54% of Americans meet the US government’s aerobic exercise recommendation, which calls for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity workouts (such as walking briskly or playing tennis), or 75 minutes a week of more intense exercise (such as jogging or swimming laps).

But the theory that merely getting enough exercise will keep people fit and healthy hasn’t proven out, as obesity rates keep rising.

Attention is now shifting towards the food system. Global food manufacturers have in recent years come under intense heat for flooding the market with processed foods, many of which have been increasingly linked to some of America’s most pernicious health problems, including obesity.

Many of those companies—including Nestlé, Unilever, and General Mills—have responded with an array of product reformulations that reduced artificial ingredients, sodium, and sugars in their foods. Others continue to face intense scrutiny and in some cases legal action taken by public health advocates. The Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Coca-Cola in 2017, saying the soda industry for years used industry-funded reports (paywall) and advertisements to shift blame for public health troubles off its products and onto consumers’ exercise habits. The American Beverage Association, an industry group that represents the soda companies, has since scrubbed its site of news releases it published advocating that point of view. The lawsuit is ongoing.

No matter the reality of obesity in America, the new CDC report found that people are just as likely to claim they are in good health as they were nearly 20 years ago. Two-thirds of people describe themselves that way.