Why Is it Harder Today to Maintain a Healthy Weight?

feet walking up steps

“When I was your age . . .”

We likely all heard an adult use that phrase to start a story of how his or her life was tougher than your life. Perhaps you’ve muttered the phrase yourself as the years have gone on. Older generations almost always feel that younger generations have it easier than they did. Now one study shows that Millennials do have a harder time their parents at one thing: avoiding obesity.

The study published in the journal of Obesity Research & Clinical Practice analyzed dietary data for over 36,000 American adults between 1971 and 2008. It also looked at the frequency with which a set of over 14,000 adults engaged in physical activity between 1988 and 2006. The researchers discovered essentially that a person in 1971 could eat more and exercise less and still avoid obesity compared to a person in 2008. Lead researcher Ruth Brown explained:

We observe that for a given amount of self-reported food intake, people will be about 10 per cent heavier in 2008 than in 1971, and about five per cent heavier for a given amount of physical activity level in 1988 than 2006.

The researchers hypothesize that “secular” or environmental factors are likely to explain why it is harder to maintain a healthy today than it was a couple decades ago. Researcher Jennifer Kuk noted that “weight management is actually much more complex than just ‘energy in’ versus ‘energy out.’” Right now, researchers only can speculate as to the potential causes, including increases in environmental pollutants, rise in prescription drug use, and reduced hours of sleep.

Another factor may be at work: the rise in the number of hours we spend sitting. Between 1980 and 2000, exercise rates stayed the same, yet obesity rates doubled. What also rose during that time? An 8% increase in the amount of time sitting.

In an interview with Yahoo! Health, Bartolome Burguera, an endocrinologist, and director of the obesity programs at Cleveland Clinic, noted this connection:

Maybe you think that you’re as active as your parents, but during the day you’re less active. You may have gone to the gym for 45 minutes, for example, but also may use an elevator to get to your office, send emails to colleagues instead of getting up to talk to them, and spend much more time sitting in front of a computer than your parents did . . . you finish off the day with less calories burned.

Technology has automated our lives so that we do not need to engage in many of the small, subtle movements of decades past. Computers dominate workplaces. Commute times have skyrocketed. Leisure time is more likely to include time in front of a screen. When you sit to do any of these, your body quite quickly becomes worse at processing fats or sugars. Sitting for long periods of time has been shown to increase the risk of developing metabolic disorders, which can make it difficult to burn calories and maintain a healthy weight.

We spend large amounts of money and energy to schedule exercise into our lives. While vigorous physical activity is a great healthy habit, we need to be attentive to how we spend the rest of our day. To help all of us maintain a healthy weight and tackle the rising obesity crisis, we need to focus on movement throughout the day, not just a one-hour block of time.

The temptations to stay seated are greater now than ever, but together we can fight back and make being on our feet the new normal.

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