Nation of Sloths
It shouldn't come as a surprise to any regular reader of these blogs that the bulk of Americans aren't in tip-top shape, but the shocking degree to which we're a nation of sloths might surprise even the most cynical among us. A new study out of Oregon State University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga reviewed data on 4,745 adults and concluded that a mere 2.7 percent of Americans meet the minimum criteria for leading a healthy lifestyle.1 That's right: more than 97 percent of us lead unhealthy lives, at least according to the guidelines set forth in this research.
The study looked at four parameters of health. First, how much exercise do the participants get? The minimum acceptable level was defined as 150 minutes of exertion, including mild exercise such as walking, a week. We already know that most adults don't move it nearly enough, so it wasn't surprising that only 46 percent of the subjects were up to snuff in this area. In fact, from a certain perspective it's somewhat unexpected that as many as 46 percent did do the 150 minutes a week given other studies we've discussed in the past. But here's the rub: The researchers determined activity not by participant self-reporting, but by attaching accelerometers to each person.2 The accelerometers measure movement, but it's unclear if the accelerometers measured only serious walking or all ambulation the way cell phone apps do, in which case someone who shuffled around the office for 150 minutes a week would have passed, hardly an acceptable workout.
The study also considered diet. And as badly as they did when it came to exercise, the participants fared even less well here, with only 38 percent meeting the minimum standard, which the study defined as "the top 40 percent of people who follow USDA dietary guidelines." Huh? The first problem here is the fuzziness of that definition. What does it mean? All we know is that the USDA guidelines suggest eating a varied diet consisting of grains, vegetables, fruits and varied protein, with no more than 10 percent of calories coming from saturated fats or added sugar and no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium daily.3 How do you get to be in the top 40 percent? What does it mean to be at the 39th percentile? Would someone consuming 20 percent of daily calories from sugar perhaps meet that standard? In any event, again, only slightly more than a third passed the nutritional standard whatever it means.
The third parameter of health was smoking, and this was the one area of the four in which most participants scored a point: 71 percent did not smoke. On the other hand, the statistics were particularly grim in the final category, body mass index. Instead of using the typical math to calculate BMI, the scientists here employed something called X-ray absorptiometry which gives a far more accurate picture of the actual percentage of body fat a person has. The dismal results found 90 percent of the participants had BMI readings in excess of the established so-called normal range, making it clear that the new normal is not the old normal.
We also know that women were more likely to eat well and not smoke than men, but they were less likely to exercise. For men, the reverse was true--they were more likely to exercise and to eat a junk diet. Adults over the age of 60 had fewer healthy characteristics than their younger counterparts, though they were more likely to eat a healthy diet. And Mexican Americans had healthier diets than everyone else in the study.
The fact that only 10 percent of the participants had healthy BMI readings and yet four times as many of them passed either the diet or exercise test, or both, makes it appear that something might be askew in data-land. If these people were eating right and exercising enough--at least according to the experts--the BMI should reflect that, but it doesn't. So either those who passed the diet parameter failed the exercise parameter or vice versa, or the dietary and exercise standards are not adequate to keep adults at a healthy level of body fat. What we do know is that only 2.7 percent passed all four parameters of health! And it wasn't much better when it came to passing three parameters, with just 16 percent of the participants managing that level of health. 37 percent managed to clear two parameters, and 34 percent managed one. Astoundingly, 11 percent could not manage even one single parameter of health.
While it's likely, as we just explained, that the exercisers didn't eat well and the careful eaters didn't exercise, it's also true that, as we've said before, 150 minutes of exercise is the bare minimum needed by the average person to counterbalance caloric intake--and that's assuming that the accelerometer that participants wore actually measured exercise and not just shuffling around. The reports on this study don't clarify whether participants were involved in strenuous enough activities to actually qualify as exercise. Also, the dietary standard here is so loosy goosy that it's hard to tell how healthy the diets of the participants actually were. While the new USDA standard is an improvement over the old food pyramid in that it emphasizes fruits and vegetables instead of meat and macaroni, it still is far from ideal. For instance, there's no mention of choosing organics over pesticide-laden products in the recommendations, and there's no consideration of the problems generated by eating too much dairy, soy, or grains.
Even senior study author Dr. Ellen Smit of Oregon State admits, "The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable, not super high. We weren't looking for marathon runners."
Given that the standards being used to measure healthy living were admittedly marginal, the results are even more alarming. The bottom line here is that we have a national crisis of monumental proportion that's not being addressed head-on. We as a people are not leading healthy lives. As our presidential candidates grasp for things to focus on, studies like this one should perhaps trigger debate and thought about what's to be done.
- 1. Stauth, David. "US adults get failing grade in healthy lifestyle behavior." 21 March 2016. Oregon State University. 26 March 2016. http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2016/mar/us-adults-get-failing-grade-healthy-lifestyle-behavior
- 2. Cha, Ariana Eunjung. "Seriously, America? Study finds mere 2.7 percent of U.S. adults meet criteria for ‘healthy lifestyle'." 22 March 2016. The Washington Post. 23 March 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/03/22/seriously-america-study-finds-mere-2-7-percent-of-u-s-adults-meet-criteria-for-healthy-lifestyle/
- 3. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/executive-summary/