Why Telling People to Exercise Won't Reduce Obesity

On Tuesday, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report detailing a set of proposals designed to bring our nation's weight problem under control. The recommendations center around three basic ideas: encouraging physical activity, making healthy food widely available, and promoting the previous two points with social marketing campaigns and regulations on junk food advertising aimed at children. 

If any of those suggestions sound familiar, it's because they are. Literally every anti-obesity campaign ever conceived has emphasized one or all of the above points. And this latest effort to make fat people slimmer will fail for same reason previous attempts have failed. No matter how much education the public receives, or how easy we make it to exercise and choose healthy foods, forcing people to change doesn't work.

There's no denying that most people would benefit from taking the IOM's advice. Regular exercise, for example, is beneficial for a variety of reasons. What's also true, however, is that redesigning communities to make them more conducive to exercise and requiring child care providers to adopt physical activity programs won't encourage people to exercise. Doing a few sets of push-ups or going outside for a long walk isn't a difficult task, as 50% of the population has already figured out. And though many public health advocates assert that lack of access to exercise facilities keeps people sedentary, the most commonly cited reason for avoiding exercise is lack of time, followed by insecurity about exercising in public, according to the American Council on Exercise.

But exercise is only a small part of the issue; what people eat is the primary contributor to weight gain which they can control, and the IOM recommendations are equally erroneous on this point. The Institute suggests that healthier options be made widely available and consumption of sugary drinks be restricted through taxes. Of course, healthy food is already widely available. The same grocery stores that sell potato chips and hot pockets also sell apples. 

Additionally, a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that close proximity to grocery stores has no bearing on the consumption of healthy food. Even fast food can be a sensible choice if people skip certain menu items. This is all underscored by recent research indicating that so-called food deserts, neighborhoods that lack access to healthy food, don't even exist. And for all the emphasis the IOM places on soda taxes as part of the solution, there is very little evidence to suggest that such taxes will make anybody slimmer and healthier.

And no anti-obesity report would be complete without a stern rebuke of food manufacturers for marketing their unhealthy products to children. Staying faithful to that precedent, the IMO report urges food and beverage producers to "...make substantial improvements in their marketing aimed directly at children and adolescents aged 2-17." In fairness, the allegation that advertising has some role in the obesity epidemic isn't entirely baseless, as some research has found a correlation between junk food advertising and childhood obesity.

 But children are still largely dependent upon their parents to provide food for them. And as mentioned above, the empty calories have to be purchased from the same stores that sell nutritious food. Those two factors allow parents to serve as good mediators between their children and the dastardly food companies. Nonetheless, children aren't helpless when exposed to advertising. Or as a review in the Journal of Consumer Research put it, "...by virtue of their growing sophistication, older children and adolescents find entertainment in analyzing the creativity strategy of many commercials and constructing theories for why certain elements are persuasive.” Of course, turning the TV off is always a viable option as well. 

Exercise and proper nutrition are key aspects of a healthy lifestyle. But forcing them on people clearly doesn't work. And while there's something to be said for properly (emphasis on "properly") educating the public about health, there are a number of factors involved, personal choice being paramount among them. People have to want to make the necessary lifestyle changes once they know how to. No amount of prodding from government agencies or clever marketing is going to get people living healthier.