Illustration by Dave van Patten

Why Americans Are So Bad at Getting Fit

Because we want it all, and we want it now

Eric Ravussin, among the world’s foremost obesity experts, offers a single anecdote he believes perfectly captures how poorly Americans think about adding physical activity into their everyday lives. He and his three children were living in Arizona in the early 1980s. The kids’ school was just a half-mile away from Ravussin’s house, but the school district wouldn’t allow them to walk there because they considered it too far away—despite the fact that walking is among the simplest ways to fight both childhood obesity and the sedentary nature of American life more generally.

On the flip side, he also loathes the extreme measures others go to lose weight — particularly on shows like The Biggest Loser. Ravussin has studied contestants while they were on the show and found that their bodies had been damaged from trying to cut so much weight in such a short period of time. While serving as president of the Obesity Society, he wrote a letter to NBC deriding the series for being “one of the worst messages possible to people about losing weight” by “even slightly making people believe they should drop half of their weight through heavy exercise and a restricted diet for a short period of time.”

We recently talked to Ravussin about why a slower, steadier approach to fitness and dieting is the best way to keep weight off, why a walking buddy is essential and why Americans should take a European approach to team sports.

What are people who made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight or get in shape probably going to do wrong?
The worst thing after New Year’s Day is to say, “I’m going to exercise five times a week, at least an hour each time.” DO. NOT. DO. THAT. You have to progress steadily into an active lifestyle. Think about it: Did you become overweight overnight? Of course not. You need time. We publish the Obesity Society’s guidelines, and the recommendation for weight loss has long been losing between half a pound and two pounds per week. You might be happy early on if you go further than that, but you’ll likely relapse. Instead, you need a sustainable plan, and to make a sustainable plan, you need physical activity.

Why is even that so hard to maintain?
The handicap for regular physical activity is the time commitment. It’s so easy not to do it, especially if you’re trying to do it alone. It’s easier to say, “Not tonight.” Or: “I’ll go tomorrow.”

That said, it’s not just about adhering to a fitness regimen. American society is way too sedentary. So many daily actions are riddled with inactivity. You fight for the closest parking space at the store and then drive your car right to your house, where you park it in your garage. In Europe, where I grew up, it’s much different. It was designed before the car — i.e., all society is conducive to being active. You have to walk to the grocery store or school since there isn’t enough capacity for everyone to have a car.

I’ve read that a new wave of architects are designing neighborhoods to be more like those in Europe before World War II. Little stores and cafes set up so you can’t drive to them; you’ll have to walk around more than you might in other towns. All of these things aren’t conscious choices that you as an individual undertake to be more active. But it makes you more active. The environment is less conducive to being sedentary. It becomes natural. Built in.

But people have to make choices, too. They have to choose to park away from the entrance and to take the stairs.

Have you seen specific behaviors or mindsets that separate people who successfully become healthier compared to those who don’t?
Those who are successful in maintaining weight loss are those who are able to engage in regular physical activity and enjoy it. Now, how do you do that? I’ve seen that if you can share it with friends, you’re more inclined to stick with it. Team sports fit this.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., you don’t have as many opportunities to join sports teams after high school or college. Again, in Europe, this is different. The expectation of playing sports socially continues into adulthood. And there are plenty of people who participate in a variety of age categories — unlike in the U.S. where if you join, say, your local soccer club and you’re in your 60s, you may have to play with people who are in their 20s.

What about people who aren’t good at team sports or athletic?
Keep it simple. Ideas about health change constantly, but I haven’t ever heard someone say walking is bad. I’ve always enjoyed exercise, but I realize for people who’ve lived a sedentary existence, it can seem like the worst thing in the world. That’s exactly why walking is tremendous, even if it’s just few steps—it’s low-impact, but it at least gets you moving.

If you don’t have support to help you, find it — friends, colleagues and/or whomever else you can engage with to establish positive exercise and lifestyle changes. It’s a necessary step toward creating a healthy environment around you.

Should your workplace be part of that healthy environment?
There’s definitely renewed interest at offices to work standing instead of sitting. Now there are adjustable desks where you can sit or stand as you choose. It even goes to an extreme where there are bicycle pedals under your desk, or a treadmill. I have enough trouble typing without moving, but some people can do it perfectly fine.

Either way, you MUST change your environment. If there are too many deaths on the roads, you impose seat belts. If there are cases of malaria, you dry the swamps. Why wouldn’t we have similar measures when it comes to obesity?

Is the seat-belt equivalent you’re talking about a fitness tracker like Fitbit?
Wearable fitness trackers and food-tracking apps are very, very important; however, the problem with these apps is that oftentimes people who begin using them are religious about their usage for the first few weeks and then stop using them. I’d like to see the app and fitness device manufacturers include more interactive features that might shoot you emails or texts to remind you to use them.

Why do you think people wait until their health has failed them, or they’ve become really overweight to start dealing with their physical issues?
Obesity can creep up on you. People can be in denial for years and only act on it when they finally see their health is lessening. People become depressed, and the vicious cycle deepens. Part of it is acceptance. As a kid, the school nurse took weight and height every year. If we gained weight and were becoming heavy for our heights, we were told this.

Along those lines, I think more physicians need to take body mass index measurements. That’s at least as important as tracking weight. Still, some people aren’t concerned when they learn they’re obese. Some actually say, “Who cares? Two-thirds of the population is obese.” When you tell someone they have cancer, they don’t say, “Plenty of people get cancer.” And yet, obesity can really diminish the quality of a person’s life as they age.