Death to America: Why Athletes Should Care About Obesity Rates


The 14th Annual State of Obesity Report contains a mixture of good and bad news in the nationwide battle against obesity. The report, a project of the Trust for American Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, indicates the rate of increase in adult obesity rates is slowing, but still rising nonetheless. Overall, the medical costs associated with obesity are estimated to be between $147-$210 billion dollars PER YEAR! For those of us sequestered in the world of coaching and training, the annual State of Obesity report provides valuable perspective: While factions within sports nutrition argue over optimal macronutrient compositions for endurance performance, whether athletes should consume sports drinks or plain water, and whether fat or carbohydrate is a better fuel for performance, more than one third of American adults are obese.

Areas where we are Winning

While the State of Obesity report contains a lot of bad news, there are some bright spots worth mentioning.

  • Adult obesity rates remained unchanged in 45 states and declined in one (Kansas) compared to last year.
  • Obesity rates for children 5 years old and under have declined from 14% to 10% since 2003-2004.
  • The number of high school students drinking soda daily dropped from 27% in 2013 to 20.4% in 2015.
  • Adult inactivity rates decreased in 32 states between 2015 and 2016. People are getting a little bit more active, but 45% of Americans are not physically active enough to experience health benefits.

Areas where we are Losing

Honestly, there are so many areas where we are losing ground in the fight against obesity that it’s difficult to pick the highlights.

  • Nearly 38% of American adults are obese, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data from 2013-2014.
  • Five states have obesity rates above 35%: West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
  • West Virginia ranks worst in adult obesity: 37.7%. Colorado ranks “best” at 22.3% but saw the greatest percentage increase between 2015-2016, despite having the lowest rate of physical inactivity at 17.9%.
  • 25% of young adults who attempt to join the military are turned away due to inadequate fitness or overweight.
  • Only 27% of American high school students were physically active for 60 minutes or more per day in 2015.

Why Athletes Should Care About Nationwide Obesity Data

While I don’t have precise data, the audience for this blog most likely has an obesity rate far below national or state averages. You’re not obese, so besides having compassion for those who are, what does it matter to you? Unfortunately, the social, economic, healthcare, and even national security implications of high obesity rates affect us all.

Competition for limited resources

Government resources are limited and when significant subpopulations need more resources, the money has to come from somewhere. Not only is the government and insurance industry directing more healthcare resources to treat obesity-related medical conditions, we are all also paying for a wide range of state and national programs funded for the sole purpose of reducing the obesity rate. The expenditures are worth it and the State of Obesity report shows great return on investment for anti-obesity programs. It costs less to prevent obesity than it does to deal with the cascade of expenses that stem from it. Nevertheless, a ton of money that could be directed to other areas, including infrastructure and education, are instead being spent on obesity prevention and treatment.

Obesity contributes to inequality

Obesity saddles individuals and families with a host of disadvantages, making it harder to achieve the American Dream. Despite body-positivity and anti-bullying campaigns, overweight and obese children are still at increased risk for being bullied and suffering from depression. Childhood obesity is correlated with lower educational performance and slower progress. Obese adults have greater absenteeism from work and lower overall work productivity. Taken together, these effects reduce educational accomplishment, which limits career potential, slows career development, and contributes to slower – or nonexistent – wage growth. Regardless of wages, obese adults spend more of their income on healthcare-related expenses. Ironically, this can exacerbate obesity by discouraging spending on healthier foods and opportunities for exercise.

Rates of obesity are higher for people with lower socioeconomic status, but there are so many factors it is difficult to determine a causal relationship between poverty and obesity (in either direction). However, one consequence that affects childhood obesity is that kids living in lower socioeconomic areas have less access to parks, pools, recreational facilities, and after-school sports. This only helps to perpetuate the cycle of obesity. Promoting a healthier, more active population won’t erase inequality, but efforts to prevent and treat obesity help reduce the educational and economic disadvantages obesity contributes to.

On the flip-side, it appears the benefits of living an active lifestyle from childhood all the way through adulthood provide significant advantages related to improved educational development and reduced healthcare costs, while can contribute to greater career progression and improved financial security. If you want to get ahead, it pays to stay fit.

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Obesity Makes Us Less Safe

Excessive weight and body fat percentage are the leading reasons willing recruits are denied the opportunity to serve in the nation’s military. Across the military branches, some physical fitness standards have been lowered in an effort to help more recruits make the grade. On the public safety side, millions of firefighters, police officers, and first responders are overweight and obese. According to the National Fire Protection Association, sudden cardiac death was the leading cause of on-duty death for firefighters in 2015.

Initially, when I saw a report that 70% of US firefighters were overweight or obese I thought the researchers had potentially misidentified muscular and fit firefighters for as obese because they would show up as having a high Body Mass Index (this is a common occurrence for muscular individuals). But the researchers had taken steps to avoid misidentification and still came up with that 70% value! Additional research cited in this article from shows obese firefighters have lower aerobic fitness and lower performance on timed readiness tests. This study suggests similar consequences for law enforcement officers, a population with one of the highest obesity rates (40.5%) of any profession in the US. Obesity puts first responders at risk for their own health, as well as the people they are trying to save.

Perspective is Important

Now that we have such incredible access to information it has become easier to go 10 miles deep within the area you are passionate about and lose all perspective of how that areas of interest fits into the world writ large. Optimizing fitness and performance is important. I’ve dedicated my life to studying sports science and helping athletes achieve their goals. But it’s also important to pick your head up sometimes and recognize how fortunate you are to be on the active and healthy side of reports like the State of Obesity. No matter how fit you are right now, stick with your training. It’s worth the time and the effort!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 19

  1. A Positive Note for our youth and MTBing: Founded in 2001, NICA (NATIONAL INTERSCHOLATIC CYCLING ASSOCIATION) is giving our kids a wonderful alternative to more traditional high school (middle school too) team sports.

    As noted on its web site, “Leagues fulfill NICA’s mission at the regional level, improving the lives of teens and positively impacting communities by providing a high quality, safe and fun interscholastic mountain bike program based on the principles of strong body, strong mind, strong character, equality and inclusivity. Leagues also oversee the development, training and education of teams and coaches in their communities.”

    During my 1st year of volunteer coaching for our high school team, I was blown away with just how great the kids were and how much they really enjoyed training and racing! So encouraging to see this in our youth! I would recommend volunteer coaching to all!

    Be Safe out there everyone!

  2. There is only one reason cyclists should care about obesity:
    the extra weight makes to harder to climb
    Everyone needs a reason to lose weight.The strength of the reason must exceed the strength of desire to avoid gustatory pleasure.
    No one can give you that reason. You must discover it for your self.

  3. In my family and other African American families being bigger is ok. It’s just big boned. Of course, it’s not unilateral but it’s enough that until the view changes our obesity rate will not change. Certainly no one in our family is having the talk that the Apple Watch also measures steps……

  4. Chris,

    The problem is the food industry. And it is not going away.

    The lady above who noted when she exercised but gained weight – diet really is the key. Yes I’m fanatic about what goes into my mouth now I’m older. When I was young I could eat 5,000 calories a day easily. The secret is re-programming our brains – getting off sugars and processed foods especially and eating mostly vegetable and fruits and drinking lots of green tea or black tea to suppress cravings. Once you get your brain back its a lot easier to control weight and ignore foods everywhere around you that are frankly all junk.

    Here’s how the food industry is controlling what America eats – and the impacts:

  5. Hey Chris.. its been a long time! Your article is spot-on and this type of info is why I started my new club, the “First Responder Cycling Club”. So far, so good–getting the word out “one rider at a time”! Thanks for all that you do!

  6. Having been active and overweight all my life, I read articles like this with a different perspective. It’s so easy to wring your hands about obesity without realizing that you’re contributing to the culture that reinforces it. All you say is “eat less, exercise more” as if that is simple and works for people whose metabolism is different from yours. The final straw for me was when I ran my first and only marathon and promptly gained 30 pounds the following year. After that I quit all intense exercise to let my metabolism reset. As long as I just do yoga and walk, my weight stays stable but if I do anything more intense, the weight shoots up. About a year ago someone commented on this blog that they had a similar experience, however I’ve never seen any professional exploration of the possibility that we’re not crazy, that this really is something some of us experience. All of the research is done on athletes who clearly have a different body type.

    P.S. The chart at the top isn’t very useful without a legend.

    1. Sarah,

      You don’t mention your calorie count during your marathon training, or in the year afterwards.
      Very curious to know if your caloric intake changed substantially during your marathon training, (my presumption is that it did, or there would have been weight loss associated with that training period) After the marathon, did you then decrease that intake back to pre-training levels, or did your intake stay at that elevated rate? If the latter, that would of course explain the weight gain.
      It is possible that, during the elevated training of marathon prep, your body had a decrease in metabolic rate, though my personal experience has always found the reverse to be true. Another factor you don’t mention is the intensity of your training, and how that compared to your intensity prior and after that cycle. I would suppose that this could have some influence on the body’s adaptations to the increased work load.
      In as much as exercise accounts for only a small portion of caloric use, and some studies attribute exercise with an increase in Resting Metabolic Rate (others find limiited effect), if caloric intake was not the main cause for the weight gain, your results would be anomalous.
      That said, I am pleased that you found a system that allows you to maintain your weight at a comfortable level, but hope that you can find a combination that would work if you chose to once again train for an endurance event.

  7. I don’t think the military recruitment issue makes obesity a bad thing. Not with having been involved in wars for most of the existence of the republic. And with nearly a thousand bases all over the world and a military budget greater than the combined budgets of the next six governments. And with millions of civilians killed in U.S. Involved wars since the end of World War Two in the other wars.

    1. Seriously??? An entertaining commentary, but as they say, opinions vary and I do not share yours.

      I live in Chapel Hill, NC. To hear such an observation as yours, one normally has to hang out at the Open Eye Cafe, post ride, where the hippies and beatniks seek the resurrection, the Marxist-Leninists convene the Revolutionary Committee and the UNC professors debate which group they want to join.

      Of course, none of this has to do with athletics, so I will not belabor the point.

      Peace out, my brother!

  8. Well written. Unfortunately, there is article after article along with all other attempts to move the needle a more substantial amount. What does it take to motivate people? Costs, poor health, misery, pain and death are not doing it! I am blessed to have two adult children who get it. As athletes, professional or amateur, it is frustrating to try to be setting an example while most of those around us ignore that. We are often referred to as “crazy!” Maybe compassion is the problem because it is enabling. Get off the couch!

  9. “Only 27% of American high school students were physically active for 60 minutes or more in 2015.” as in 60 min of activity total for the year?!

    1. Post
  10. The main reason for obesity is diet. This will not be admitted or addressed in the current system as Coca Cola, McDonalds, Kellogg’s etc have too much influence and stand to lose billions. A 180 turn in diet is required, exercise can only paper over the cracks

    1. It has to be both. You aren’t going to end obesity with activity and exercise alone. But being fit and fat is healthier than being thin and sedentary. The protective health benefits of exercise are that significant. But is also hard to get obese people to do enough activity to get the health benefits.

    2. Matt, please see this article I have compiled on the food industry and the American food intake –

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