Recently I completed some part time work with a health promotion company that involved conducting a series of biometric screenings (height, weight, waist circumference, and blood pressure). Over the course of these screenings I interacted with some very fit, lean, and healthy individuals as well as some very overweight, unhealthy individuals. Meeting with such a diverse population made me really start to wonder, why is one group of people thin and fit while the other group of people is overweight and out of shape? What makes these groups so different?
Obesity is oftentimes blamed upon socioeconomic factors: proximity to fast food, level of higher education, earnings potential, location of residence, and length of commute to work. However, during these recent biometric screenings, these factors did not seem to be the primary culprit. I say this because the individuals I screened all worked for the same company, and although they performed numerous different jobs, in a sense their careers were all fairly similar. In addition, the majority of the individuals I worked with earned a similar amount of money, and all lived in the Denver metro.
Admittedly, I do not have statistics and demographics on these people to be 100% certain that these important socioeconomic factors are not different among this group of individuals. If I did have all of their demographic information, perhaps I would see some of these socioeconomic factors contributing to whether a specific individual was lean or obese. However, I would like to propose an alternative hypothesis underlying the reason as to why these two groups of people were so different. This hypothesis is not based on empirical data but is instead based upon the numerous conversations I had with hundreds of people over the course of the recent month.
The most striking difference I saw between fit, healthy individuals, and unhealthy individuals was the number of skills in their “exercise toolboxes”. In my vernacular, an “exercise toolbox” is the sum of all the abilities, skills, and tools used/required for an individual to be physically active. The fit, healthy individuals that I screened reported that they oftentimes went on hikes, mountain biked, swam, road biked, biked to work, walked their neighborhoods, lifted weights, monitored their activity levels with a Fitbit accelerometer, or were an active member of a gym. In general, the unhealthy population reported being in more of a transitory period where they were meaning to increase the amount of physical activity they performed but had yet to do so and weren’t really sure ‘”how” to do so. I believe, for the most part, the unhealthy population is lacking the skills and tools to become more physically active, not necessarily the ability or the initiative. The bottom line is, the healthy population tends to have a larger exercise toolbox than the unhealthy population.
In addition to the high levels of activity the lean individuals performed, they had also developed skills and strategies to remain active in the face of adversity. For example, let’s say that you are a regular runner and use it as your only form of exercise. Eventually you find yourself with a running related injury. Now what?? Do you quit exercising and take it easy until your injury heals? Do you try to stretch and alternate between heat and cold and battle through the pain because running is all you know how to do? Or do you find another mode of exercise to maintain your fitness while you do what’s necessary to get your injury healed up?
In the case of a runner with numerous tools at his/her disposal the following options are viable (depending on the injury, of course): swimming laps, running in a pool, stair climbing, walking on an incline treadmill, rock climbing, riding an exercise bike, rowing, or circuit training with weights. These are all skills that must be learned or developed; however, this description provides an example of someone with a great exercise toolbox.
So, what about those individuals from the health screenings that finds him or herself overweight or obese. As I mentioned above, so many times these individuals tell me that they know what they need to do, they just are not doing it. I think this logic may apply more to nutrition (eat more fruits, vegetables, and lean meat) than it does to exercise. Anyone who has ever been in a fitness center of gym knows that 90% of the people performing resistance training DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING (regardless of age or current fitness status)! I give them a tremendous amount of credit for being in the gym, but I am amazed by the way they contort their bodies, tug, pull, and yank on equipment without severely injuring themselves. The vast majority of overweight/obese individuals have no prior experience with resistance training and cannot just walk into a gym and feel comfortable being there, let alone with how to use the equipment. The same idea holds true for cardiovascular equipment. Many of us know how to turn on the machine, but how fast should you go and for how long? How many days a week is necessary? Should you alternate with sprints and rest? There are so many questions that need answers. Again, these skills must be learned, developed, or taught by a trainer, nutritionist, or friend.
It is very important to keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with not knowing the first thing about exercise. In fact, I think the majority of the people in the US today don’t know any more about basic exercise than they learned in Physical Eduation class in school growing up. But, identifying activities that interest you and that you are willing and excited to learn about is the key to establishing those first tools into your toolbox. Don’t limit yourself to just the traditional running and lifting weights, think outside the box! Also, it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with asking for help, searching on the Internet, hiring a coach, or buying a book to help you learn about a new activity. Very few people can teach themselves how to play an instrument, so why should you have to teach yourself how to exercise. It may be intimidating to ask for help or try something new (especially as an adult), but obtaining new skills and finding new passions makes it all worth it.
Someone with a great exercise toolbox has all the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to perform numerous different types of activities and also knows how to adapt to numerous different circumstances (injury, travel, weather, time, etc.). No matter how large your toolbox or diverse your skill set there is always room to add new skills and explore different forms of physical activity. If you are bored with your current routine, I encourage you to seek other new and exciting forms of physical activity. You may not need to know how to swim or kayak now, but it may be a useful skill to add to your exercise toolbox for a later time. When you do need it down the road, you’ll be ready!
Todd M. Weber, PhD, MS, RD