BYU study charts new territory: Can you break the cycle of obesity?

Published: Thursday, April 4 2013 5:45 p.m. MDT

Emily Partridge works out in the gym at a Murray apartment complex Thursday, April 4, 2013. A new BYU study points out that obesity can cause a decrease in exercise.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

PROVO — It's widely understood that a lack of physical activity can lead to obesity, but new BYU research points out that obesity can also cause a decrease in exercise.

And rebounding from either is difficult, but doable.

"We found what you would expect to find," said Larry Tucker, BYU exercise science professor and senior author of the study that appears in the journal Obesity.

But the findings, which are some of the first objectively measured results of their kind, "reinforce the idea that we have a cycle that people get into — and tend to get into at a fairly young age — they gain a little weight and this leads to less physical activity. Less physical activity leads to more weight gain over time," Tucker said.

"It reinforces the idea that we have to break the cycle," he said, adding that making a decision to exercise should be like deciding to eat.

"We tend to not skip eating, but tend to skip the energy expenditure end of it," Tucker said. "We need to set goals and encourage our loved ones to get out and move each day."

Emily Partridge, of Murray, recently decided to add exercise to her daily routine. She's nearly a month into her program and has done well so far, noting a remarkable change in how she feels, and her general outlook on life and health has improved.

Other benefits she reports include a feeling of increased productivity on the days she works out and a side effect of looser clothing, which provides a little bit of satisfying motivation to keep her going.

Approximately 69 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of the conditions continue to climb, but Tucker said the hope is that much like with smoking, which plagued large populations across the nation decades ago, "eventually, we will be able to work through it."

But being overweight or obese, he said, has its consequences, and health "should be something we as a population value more."

Tucker said it is difficult for those who are overweight or obese to get started with exercise, and results can be hard to spot until it becomes a habit.

Partridge, 33, is of the same mind, adding that regular exercise was hard at first.

"Everything hurt afterward, which just made me feel worse about being so out of shape," she said.

Being overweight precludes certain fashion endeavors and activities, including specific parts of acting and theater, which she loves. She also wants to have children someday.

Accepting the responsibility for her body being where it is helps Partridge focus on the end goal, which is to look and feel great for years to come.

The addition of just 30 minutes of physical activity a day, in the form of walking, aerobics, weightlifting and dance classes, has ultimately led to better food choices and more successful efforts to maintain the relationships that she has always valued.

"I know I have a long way to go, but I'm really proud of myself for sticking with it," Partridge said.

Results, which are often harder for overweight or obese individuals to obtain, are important to keep someone going on the right path toward a healthier lifestyle, Tucker said. His research only helped to intensify the need for it.

Researchers strapped an accelerometer to more than 250 study participants to measure their actual movement and intensity of activity. Previous research has relied on self-reported data, which Tucker said can be flawed.

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