The Obesity Epidemic
Following dramatic increases in overweight and obesity among U.S. adults between 1976–1980 and 2003–2004, obesity has reached epidemic proportions—32% of adults are obese. Moreover, the epidemic is not limited to adults. The percentage of young people who are overweight has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Among children and adolescents aged 2–19 years, 17% are overweight.
People who are obese are at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis-related disabilities, and some cancers. The estimated annual cost of obesity in the United States in 2000 was about $117 billion.
Promoting regular physical activity and healthy eating and creating an environment that supports these behaviors are essential to reducing the obesity epidemic.
Lack of Physical Activity
Regular physical activity reduces the risk for heart attack, colon cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and may reduce the risk for stroke. It also helps to control weight; contributes to healthy bones, muscles, and joints; reduces falls among older adults; helps to relieve the pain of arthritis; reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression; and is associated with fewer hospitalizations, physician visits, and medications. Physical activity can also help people avoid developing functional limitations, can improve physical function, and can provide therapeutic benefits for people with heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, arthritis, lung disease, and other chronic diseases. Moreover, physical activity need not be strenuous to be beneficial; people of all ages benefit from moderate-intensity physical activity, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking most days of the week.
Despite the proven benefits of physical activity, more than 50% of U.S. adults do not get enough physical activity to provide health benefits; 24% are not active at all in their leisure time. Activity decreases with age, and sufficient activity is less common among women than men and among those with lower incomes and less education.
Insufficient physical activity is not limited to adults. More than a third of young people in grades 9–12 do not regularly engage in vigorous physical activity. Daily participation in high school physical education classes dropped from 42% in 1991 to 28% in 2003.
The Critical Role of Good Nutrition
Research shows that good nutrition can help to lower people’s risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes, and osteoporosis. However, a large gap remains between recommended dietary patterns and what Americans actually eat. For example, in 2003, only about one-fourth of U.S. adults ate the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. In addition, in the last 30 years, calorie intake has increased for both men and women.
Good nutrition begins in infancy. Children who were not breastfed are at increased risk of overweight, asthma, and some childhood cancers. The American Academic of Pediatrics recommends that infants be breastfed for at least 1 year, yet 30% of infants in this country are never breastfed, and 64% are no longer breastfed at 6 months of age. To help people improve their eating habits, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture publish Dietary Guidelines for Americans every 5 years.