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Dr. J. on Running

Expanding American Waistline

Problem Has Two Faces

Published October 11, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

My tour of duty brings the collateral benefit of a long commute and a chance to catch up on the news. Add to that the inebriating voice of the newsreader on the campus radio station, and life on the road is not so dull after all.

This week on National Public Radio, Morning Edition featured the ever-growing American waistline. In the process, NPR satisfied my hunger for a daily dose of numbers and added legitimacy to our collective pursuit of running.

According to NPR, half the Americans are overweight. This fact comes as no statistical surprise, since half of us weigh above the average. After all, America is more than just Lake Wobagon. NPR went on to say that one quarter of American children are overweight, and one fifth of all Americans are obese, weighing at least 20 percent above normal.

Ironically, the height and weight tables that define obesity have undergone an inflationary evolution of their own. Originally developed by the life insurance industry to correlate heft with mortality rates, these tables have been revised upwards to bring more Americans below the obesity line.

The NPR report went on to recognize the two faces of the problem, food intake and energy expenditure. Americans gain weight because we simply eat more than we burn. However, the surprise came when the narrator split the blame equally between our way of life and the food industry.

Mechanization and modernization have systematically eliminated the requirement, then the opportunity, to expend energy on our daily pursuits. Cars, televisions, remote controls, computers, shopping malls, escalators and elevators have conspired to atrophy our motor muscles and expand our profiles.

NPR reported that the American food industry, the most efficient in the world, produces over 1 trillion calories per day, or 3,800 calories for every woman, man and child in this country. Typically, a woman requires 2,000 calories per day and a man lives on 2,500 daily calories. On average, each of us has access to 1,500 excess calories per day.

With supply exceeding real need by 65 percent, food producers and manufacturers compete for our wallets and arteries. Using the largest advertising budget of any industry, food commercials and vendors surround us everywhere.

The Department of Agriculture finds itself in internal conflict. While attempting to encourage healthy eating through guidelines and pyramids, its primary role remains subsidizing and promoting American food producers, and helping them sell as much food as possible.

Thus, the extra calories end up going to waste or to the waist. Separate studies suggest that, out of the 1,500 extra calories per person, 1,400 calories go to waste. Only 100 calories per day per person join us in a lifetime partnership, steadily increasing our average weight by 1 pound per month, accounting for half the nationís ailments.

This is where running comes in. At any speed, the average runner burns 100 calories per mile. Consequently, running holds the potential of curing half of Americaís ills. The other half falls outside the purview of this column. If we extrapolate the numbers to include the costs of health care, we can stretch to an astounding conclusion.

According to the Health Care Financing Administration, a non-fictional federal government agency, the US spends over 1 trillion dollars a year on health care. So, if every American ran an extra mile a day, we could reduce health care costs by a staggering 500 billion dollars per year.

Granted, running a mile a day is not the most efficient way to exercise. For the 160 million sedentary Americans, those seven miles per week are better organized in three runs of 2 to 3 miles each. The longer runs of 3 miles bring additional aerobic benefit, beyond the exothermic calorific expenditure.

To the 110 million Americans who ran at least 365 miles last year, I take off my proverbial hat. Through your unselfishness, you skewed the height and weight charts, and permitted the rest of the country to eat more. Keep running those miles, and keep America lighter.

Kamal Jabbour took up running to lose weight. Ten years and thousands of miles later, he is back where he started! His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains TrackMeets.com, the world leader in live track webcasting, and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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