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BYU study charts new territory: Can you break the cycle of obesity?

PROVO — It's widely understood that a lack of physical activity can lead to obesity, but new BYU research points out that obesity can also cause a decrease in exercise.

And rebounding from either is difficult, but doable.

"We found what you would expect to find," said Larry Tucker, BYU exercise science professor and senior author of the study that appears in the journal Obesity.

But the findings, which are some of the first objectively measured results of their kind, "reinforce the idea that we have a cycle that people get into — and tend to get into at a fairly young age — they gain a little weight and this leads to less physical activity. Less physical activity leads to more weight gain over time," Tucker said.

"It reinforces the idea that we have to break the cycle," he said, adding that making a decision to exercise should be like deciding to eat.

"We tend to not skip eating, but tend to skip the energy expenditure end of it," Tucker said. "We need to set goals and encourage our loved ones to get out and move each day."

Emily Partridge, of Murray, recently decided to add exercise to her daily routine. She's nearly a month into her program and has done well so far, noting a remarkable change in how she feels, and her general outlook on life and health has improved.

Other benefits she reports include a feeling of increased productivity on the days she works out and a side effect of looser clothing, which provides a little bit of satisfying motivation to keep her going.

Approximately 69 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of the conditions continue to climb, but Tucker said the hope is that much like with smoking, which plagued large populations across the nation decades ago, "eventually, we will be able to work through it."

But being overweight or obese, he said, has its consequences, and health "should be something we as a population value more."

Tucker said it is difficult for those who are overweight or obese to get started with exercise, and results can be hard to spot until it becomes a habit.

Partridge, 33, is of the same mind, adding that regular exercise was hard at first.

"Everything hurt afterward, which just made me feel worse about being so out of shape," she said.

Being overweight precludes certain fashion endeavors and activities, including specific parts of acting and theater, which she loves. She also wants to have children someday.

Accepting the responsibility for her body being where it is helps Partridge focus on the end goal, which is to look and feel great for years to come.

The addition of just 30 minutes of physical activity a day, in the form of walking, aerobics, weightlifting and dance classes, has ultimately led to better food choices and more successful efforts to maintain the relationships that she has always valued.

"I know I have a long way to go, but I'm really proud of myself for sticking with it," Partridge said.

Results, which are often harder for overweight or obese individuals to obtain, are important to keep someone going on the right path toward a healthier lifestyle, Tucker said. His research only helped to intensify the need for it.

Researchers strapped an accelerometer to more than 250 study participants to measure their actual movement and intensity of activity. Previous research has relied on self-reported data, which Tucker said can be flawed.

"Large surveys have people report what they do, and when you do that, about 50 to 60 percent of the population report that they get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. But put objective devices on them, and it's less than 10 percent who are actually doing regular exercise," he said. "There's a significant discrepancy between what people report and what they are doing."

The study measured physical activity performed by 254 female participants, 124 of whom were considered obese. The women each wore the accelerometers for a week at the start of the study and then for a week at the end. On average, physical activity dropped by 8 percent over the course of 20 months for the obese participants. Tucker said it equates to cutting exercise time down by 28 minutes a week.

Non-obese participants showed essentially no change over the course of the study, maintaining similar levels of physical activity from the beginning to the end.

While planned and orchestrated physical activity is the best way to work it into a daily schedule, Tucker said brisk walking for a minimum of 30 minutes a day for five days a week "works quite nicely" for most people. Putting exercise off until the end of the day, he said, makes it tougher to accomplish.

"It takes a unique individual to get 150 minutes a week," Tucker said. "It's as important as most other things in our lives. You just have to fit it in. You can't say, 'I'll do it if I have time,' because it just won't happen."

Tucker said he jogs on his treadmill early every morning in order to get it out of the way. The current environment, with its stimulating foods, ready access and easy preparation, he said, "is making it more difficult for people to be active and to be lean."

Avoiding the cycle of increased weight gain and decreased ability to change it, he said, begins with an active childhood or a lifestyle that incorporates daily movement.

"When people aren't used to moving and never learned to enjoy movement or physical activity, it can be harder to pick up later in life," Tucker said, adding that physical activity tends to decrease over time, as age increases.

Once a person gets into his or her 20s, he said, there is a significant drop-off in time spent exercising.

"We just find other things to do with our time," Tucker said, adding that weight gain and the increasing difficulty to move are also factors "working against us."

Sticking with a regular exercise program, he said, can yield the best results, but moderate exercise "makes a huge difference in health."

Jared Tucker, a graduate student at the time, was the lead author of the study, and exercise science professors James LeCheminant and Bruce Bailey also contributed. Their work will be published in the March issue of Obesity.


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