Don't confuse need for exercise with war on obesity

March 29, 2011

The Sun editorial "Getting exercised over exercise" (March 28) makes some good points and then loses them in careless arguments that equate the need for healthy movement and activity with the war on obesity.

There is no controversy about our need for more activity and the personal responsibility, along with civic choices, that are part of that. There is little question that doing away with recess and physical education are bad ideas with long term costs that far outweigh any initial savings. No one is arguing against the idea that more active people are healthier people.

But there's lots of controversy in the war on obesity — well-documented questions about how it is framed (as a public health problem that targets individuals and their medical care), how it is substantiated (often with studies that conflate correlation and causation), how it is financed (there's a multi-billion dollar industry in fighting obesity), and how it is marketed (media coverage that exploits social and cultural bias and fear about weight).

Obesity is not a "lifestyle choice," no matter which side of the controversy you are on. There are tremendous genetic, hormonal, medical, environmental and socioeconomic factors involved. Nobody chooses to be or to stay obese in our fat-hating/shaming/punishing culture.

Weight is not a reliable indicator of health. You can't look at a person — fat or thin — and know if they eat healthy food or lead an active lifestyle.

Nobody is brushing aside the war on obesity as a less pressing concern. Again, those on both sides of the controversy have strong feelings. The anti-obesity warriors believe that everything from health care costs to global warming rides on getting rid of fat people; fat people feel the bias, hate, shame and blame every day.

Finally, there are bad outcomes for the good idea of getting people to be more physically active when that goal is conflated with the war on obesity. People may get out and get active, but then when they don't lose weight or maintain weight loss, they grade themselves a failure and sadly give up on the activity. It's a much better idea to set functional, accessible goals for people (move more, eat healthy), cheer them on when they try, and stop judging them by a number on a machine.

Lizbeth Binks Carney, Towson

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