Alli Rainey: Fat And Crazy?!
America’s Grim Outlook on Dementia & Obesity & What We Can Do About It
People in our country are losing control of their minds and bodies at an alarmingly escalating rate. Dementia and obesity stand to threaten our nation’s future in so many ways – none of them positive. As these conditions both reach epic proportions, it’s time for us take notice and to start coming up with realistic ways on both an individual and a community level that can help slow the growth of these insidious ailments.
The Dementia Epidemic
Driving back across the country from our annual rock-climbing trip to the Red River Gorge this fall, I tuned into National Public Radio (NPR) for entertainment whenever I could tune a station in. I happened to catch an episode of Talk of Nation called Preparing for the Looming Dementia Crisis. This captivating show contained a frightening statistic from the World Health Organization: 36 million people worldwide suffer from dementia right now, and experts expect that number to double in the next 20 years.
What is dementia? It is not one disease, but rather, a definition that includes an array of aging-associated diseases and conditions characterized by a decline in cognitive and intellectual functions, including Alzheimer’s. The older a population grows, the more people become at risk for dementia. According to the numbers talked about on the show, as the world’s population ages and more and more people live past 65, the incidence of dementia rises – to the point that 80 percent of people who live to be over 85 will suffer from some form of dementia.
People can remain relatively physically healthy while living with dementia for years, which is posing huge demands on the nation’s healthcare system and families as people try to care adequately for their loved ones. As summed up by Stephen Hall in his October 2012 article published in the MIT Technology Review, “We have no effective treatments for dementia, a huge health crisis facing the world. The annual cost of care in the United States alone could reach $1 trillion by 2050.”
The Obesity Epidemic
After listening to this saddening show, we stopped at a typical American-fare sit-down diner for a hamburger. I’d been craving this as a treat, and as a reward for the long hours of driving it seemed like the perfect time and place for it. We ordered a standard meal from the menu that included an appetizer for two and a burger plate. The waitress proceeded to bring out an alarmingly enormous dish of fried vegetables almost simultaneously with two ridiculously huge burgers coupled with fries, recommending to us that we also, “Save room for dessert, because there’s a great new one back there!”
Kevin said, “Are you kidding me?”
We can both eat a lot – don’t get me wrong – but this was an incredible overload of food for a single meal, and the idea of dessert was completely nuts. It was a perfect illustration of how serving sizes have grown with the girth of this nation – or vice versa, more likely. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans consume one out of every five meals at a restaurant – and if they’re consuming meals like that one and believing that this is a normal and reasonable amount of food to put down in one sitting, it’s no wonder that our country’s waistline is growing by leaps and bounds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fully one-third of adult Americans are now obese – not simply overweight, but obese. Nearly 70 percent of American adults are overweight, including those who are obese. Obesity brings with it an array of elevated risks for serious, often life-threatening health conditions, such as stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some kinds of cancer. It also burdens the nation’s healthcare system enormously, driving the rising costs of healthcare even higher. And the nation has seen a tremendous increase in obesity in just the last 20 years – with no end in sight.
Where Fitness Fits In
Honestly, it’s pretty easy to forget about or not even recognize the daunting nature of these two major epidemics facing our country when you’re constantly surrounded by the ultra-fit and fitness-conscious people so prevalent in the rock-climbing community. As a climber, I know that I tend to think of climber bodies as the norm – even while another part of me knows this simply isn’t the case. I’m surrounded most of the time, though, by super-fit, toned, healthy individuals of all ages who are as a whole way more informed about making healthy diet and nutrition choices than the general population is. (In fact, as athletes most of us don’t have to and probably shouldn’t follow some of the recommendations made for the general population, but ironically, we’re the ones most likely to embrace them…but that’s an entirely different subject matter). We love to move our bodies so much that most of us have trouble taking enough rest days – quite the opposite situation that most of our fellow Americans wrestle with, so I gather.
All of the above leads me to ask the following: Can we find ways, as individuals and communities (e.g. the climbing community, the yoga community, all of the physically active communities made up of passionate participants), to more actively and effectively involve and include more people in regular physical activities?
To make this happen, we have to be willing to step outside our communities or at the very least, to make our communities more welcoming places to newcomers – places that people want to stay and become a part of, rather than experiment with once or twice and then never come back. We need to try to reach out to others with our much-loved activities, hoping that we can help light their inner fires to reconnect with the joy of human movement and playing. People often need a reason beyond just “getting fitter” to stay engaged in regular physical activity. I believe that working out needs to be fun and feel good for most people to stick with it, instead of viewing exercise as a burden to be endured. The very idea of trying out a new physical activity with little or no fitness, especially when coupled with the often overwhelming prospect of having to lose weight, can lead to not trying at all, or to people giving up on new activities really quickly when the results don’t happen fast enough – especially when all they’re after is weight loss, nothing more. But if the activity has a mentally stimulating component and brings with it an enhanced social network (as both climbing and yoga do, for example), it has the potential to perhaps keep people coming back long enough to reap physical fitness rewards as well – and possibly, to lead to lifelong involvement.
The benefits of engaging in regular physical fitness won’t necessarily just contribute solely to reducing obesity and the risk of obesity-related diseases. Though the association is less clear, a number of respected organizations, studies and institutions, including the Alzheimer’s Association and MayoClinic.com, suggest that it’s possible that regular physical activity might help decrease the onset of and symptoms of dementia, among other lifestyle choices. These other lifestyle factors include staying socially and mentally active – both of which are common factors in many physical exercise programs or activities as well, including both rock climbing and yoga, among others. Being involved in an activity that revolves around physical endeavors often leads to improved diet, too, as a person becomes more educated and health conscious by interacting with others involved, as well as wanting to improve his or her individual ability at the physical activity.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t intend to oversimplify this situation at all or to suggest that just encouraging, inviting, educating and supporting others’ efforts to engage in physical fitness will solve these two major ailments facing our nation. Clearly, a wide array of efforts needs to be made on too many fronts to count in order to start chipping away at these issues. But looking at it from a personal perspective and asking what I (or you) can do to help, it seems so obvious – we need to look beyond our physically fit communities and try to reach out more to the population at large, to get more people engaged in regular physical activities that they enjoy, and to make our communities as welcoming and supportive as possible as we invite and encourage more involvement from people of all ages, abilities and fitness levels.
Stay tuned to prAna Life and my own blog throughout 2013 for more fitness-related entries on crafting a workable and balanced exercise plan to help you follow through with your New Year’s Resolution to get fitter in 2013. Until then, have a happy, healthy and safe new year!
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
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