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The Perfect Storm Expanding America’s Obesity Problem

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Overweight woman in pink tank top: Obesity

America has been in a health crisis for decades. Overall, our waists have been getting bigger and our pants larger. Disturbingly, according to a 2017-18 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a whopping 42.4% of Americans are obese and have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. America’s obesity problem has been steadily creeping up whereby only two decades ago it was at 30%.

Obesity carries with it a host of health risks. It is positively correlated with strokes and high blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure causes an increased risk of heart attacks. Obesity also dramatically increases the probability of diabetes, particularly with women. Women with a BMI of 30 have a 28 times greater risk of developing diabetes than women of normal weight. With a BMI of 35, that risk moves to 93 times.

Research now is also strongly suggesting that obesity increases the risk of contracting a serious illness and dying from Covid-19. A study in the British Medical Journal reported that after adjusting for confounding variables such as age, sex, ethnicity, and social deprivation, it was found that while being overweight increases the relative risk of critical illness from Covid-19 by 44%, being clinically obese nearly doubles the risk of critical illness. The greater the weight problem one has, the greater the risk someone has of becoming critically ill and dying from Covid-19.

Weight loss saves lives

During this pandemic, it is clear that collectively losing weight will save lives. A campaign to have Americans eat nutritiously, cut excess calories, and exercise would be an excellent method to reduce the nation’s obesity and mortality rate in this pandemic. It would also save the U.S. money with fewer dollars spent on ventilators and hospital beds. Unfortunately, the campaign is not likely to happen. Instead, our overweight nation has been beset by a perfect storm of factors that likely has expanded our girths rather than tightening our belts.

The pandemic has made Americans more sedentary. A report published in Cambridge University Press found that normally active participants reduced their activity level by 32% in April, during the lockdown. Inactive participants, though, just continued with their poor exercise routines.

Stay-at-home orders meant staying at home. For the many Americans who do not have large yards and places to run, staying at home meant lounging around, checking social media, and watching TV inside a small apartment or cramped house. Many white-collar workers escaped cubicles only to work in front of a laptop all day from home. At the office there were some requirements to walk around to the printer, or at least to the car. At home, walking could be defined by the number of steps to the refrigerator, then to the bathroom, and back.

Closed gyms contribute to the obesity problem

Even after the economy’s slow reopening, exercise routines have suffered. With images in their minds of panting mouths, close sweaty bodies, and shared equipment, many state governors pushed the opening of gyms into later phases. Some states have apparently pushed off the reopening of gyms indefinitely. At the end of June, New York’s governor announced that the opening of gyms wouldn’t even be in phase 4 of the reopening, which is supposedly the last phase of the reopening.

The loss of business has been devastating to the gyms with some big names like Gold’s Gym and 24-Hour Fitness having filed for bankruptcy. For the gyms that did open, special social distancing measures like shower curtains and exercise pods were put into place. With sanitizing stations everywhere, gyms try to persuade their customers that it is safe to return.

But it’s hard for gyms to be convincing, and without confidence that they can workout safely, many original customers aren’t ready to come back. This concern is even more true for those with weight problems, who know they are vulnerable to Covid-19’s more serious effects. Then on top of this difficulty of getting customers to return, gyms are also forced to operate at reduced capacity. The many safety guidelines require reservations to ensure compliance. Hard-core gym goers typically reserve first dissuading less gym-inclined Americans from going.

Comfort food consumption has increased

The American diet has also suffered. Back in March and April, when the economy was being turned on its head, frozen pizza was booming with a 94% increase in sales over the same month in 2019. When the pandemic hit, people turned to canned goods and frozen foods, which have long shelf lives and reduce the need to go to the grocery store. But much of that is not healthy. Canned goods often use salt as preservatives, increasing the risk of heart disease. Frozen dinners, if not selected for being healthy, can have high sodium content, lots of fat, and many calories.

The stress caused by the pandemic has taken a toll on America’s mental health; a byproduct of this was the consumption of more comfort foods. As mentioned above, frozen pizza sales boomed. Snack sales have also increased by 20% when compared with 2019. As a coping mechanism, many of us have turned to pizza, potato chips and french fries, all foods known for increasing blood pressure and our girth.

The majority of Americans are vulnerable to Covid-19 because of our weight. Yet, the pandemic has created a perfect storm, which is conspiring to make us put on more pounds. America’s obesity problem continually increases, but putting on the pounds means more risk. However, if we are aware of the forces against us, we can stop the increase. Dropping our weight will then drop our BMI, and lower our risk for critical illness due to Covid-19.

Fellow Americans, I challenge you. Get out and walk around your yard or down the street; it is safe when you keep your distance. Find less crowded spaces to work out or lesser known parks or trails to put your shoes to the test. Put your comfort food down and replace it with some fruit. Make an exercise routine. Make a conscious effort to reduce your weight. Know that if you do this, you could be saving your life.

Read more on the medical impacts of the pandemic with the next generation of healthcare – telehealth and why we should keep flattening the curve.