UA professor connects health habits to childhood

Dr. Alan Blum, a professor of family medicine at The University of Alabama, believes sugar and salt-laden snack machines mixed with a lack of physical education in grade schools deserve a heaping portion of blame for the nation’s high obesity rates.

During his medical training in Miami, Fla., in the 1970s, Blum witnessed the local school board buying into the soda companies’ claims that the school system’s profits from these machines would pay for their athletic programs. He unsuccessfully testified against the practice.

“Now we’re all paying the price,” he said.

Blum said schools’ roles deepened when many boards instituted the Channel One television system. The company paid to put TV sets in every classroom but required every student to watch a daily news program full of commercials for fast food chains, soda and candy.

“Even that 15 minutes a day would have been so much

better spent on the ball field or in the gym,” he said.

Schools can’t shoulder all of the blame, however. Blum said the eating and lifestyle choices families make every day contribute to the issue, such as excessive hours spent inside in front of the TV or computer screen in lieu of outdoor physical activity.

Blum said lower income areas often contain “food deserts” in which people often have no choice but to shop for food at convenience stores, which usually do not offer healthy items. If nutritious alternatives to junk food are available, they are often significantly more expensive than their convenient, processed counterparts.

Though obesity rates for college students are a bit lower than the national and state averages, young adults are by no means exempt from the trend. According to 2010 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index data, 18.2 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 are obese.

Alabama is the fourth fattest state in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC found in a January 2012 study that 32 percent of Alabama’s adult population was obese in 2011. Mississippi measured the highest prevalence in the country with 34.9 percent, while Colorado was the slimmest state with a 20.7 percent obesity rate. The nations overall obesity rate was 35.7 percent.

The CDC based these percentages upon body mass index calculations based on adults’ self-reported heights and weights. The CDC defines an adult with a BMI of 30 or higher as obese. For a person who is five feet, nine inches tall, 203 pounds is the cutoff for a BMI of 30.

John Jackson, assistant director of fitness and research at the Student Recreation Center, said the college years are crucial ones in regards to a student’s weight and overall level of health and fitness, as many young adults change old health habits, start new good ones or slip into bad ones during their time at school.

“Around 18 to 24 years old is that general age range where you usually establish the exercise and fitness practices that you take with you the rest of your life,” Jackson said.

Sheena Gregg, assistant director of nutrition education and health services in the College of Community Health Sciences, said the daily balancing act of academic, extracurricular and work commitments that constitute students’ daily schedules can make it difficult to develop and maintain the proper habits.

“Students are usually coming in from this highly structured high school schedule, where they were in school eight to nine hours a day and many had sport practice in the evening after school,” Gregg said. “It can be overwhelming for some people to move into college where you have to decide when, what and how much to eat, as well as when to get physical activity, and they have to balance it all around class and homework.”

Maintaining this balance often necessitates late-night studying – and often eating while studying – a practice psychology professor James Hamilton said can often contribute to weight gain.

“We have a chemical called cortisol that affects our learning and memory, our immune systems and the mechanisms that regulate fat storage,” Hamilton said in an emailed statement. “It is released at high levels in the morning and tapers off in the afternoon. Stress and lots of late-day activity can keep cortisol output high throughout the day. The more cortisol activity, the more fat storage.”

Jackson said reaching the perfect balance between storage and expenditure is the key to maintaining a healthy weight.

“The reason people gain weight is they are taking in more calories than they are expending,” he said. “I know that sounds basic, but that’s really what it boils down to. If you’re taking in more calories than you spend, over time that’s going to build up, and you’re going to gain weight.”

Gregg said contemporary society’s increasing emphasis on convenience and ease means many people aren’t getting enough physical activity and exercise into their daily routines.

“I don’t like the word ‘exercise,’” Blum said. “I prefer movement. Everybody needs to move more. Even while sitting and watching TV, one can dance with the arms and upper body.”

Blum, Jackson, Gregg and Hamilton all agree subtle adjustment is the best way to incorporate more movement into one’s daily routine to maintain or reach a healthy weight.

“A lot of people feel like they have to go run or workout for 30 minutes or an hour at a time, and they don’t think they have time, so they just don’t do it,” Gregg said. “But it’s more important that you just be active. Take a 10-minute power walk in the morning on the way to class, and then take another one at lunch. Park a little further out than normal at the grocery store or take the stairs instead of the elevator in an academic building or dorm.”

Jackson said the small, simple daily choices often add up to either aid or obstruct fitness goals.

“I always tell people that a Snickers bar is about 250 calories,” he said. “You can eat the Snickers bar then walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes to burn those 250 calories. If you ask me, it’s a lot easier to just not eat that Snickers bar.”


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