Bridging the Gap
Wayne Westcott, PhD, points to strong role modeling, resistance training, and interventions by health and fitness professionals as keys to reducing obesity.
After serving many years as director of fitness research for the YMCA, Wayne Westcott, PhD, now works as director for fitness research programs at Quincy College in Massachusetts. Westcott has been a strength training consultant for the U.S. Navy, ACE, the YMCA of the USA, and Nautilus. He has also served as an editorial advisor for numerous publications, including The Physician and Sportsmedicine, ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, Prevention and Shape, and he’s written more than 20 books on strength training. Westcott is a board member for the International Council on Active Aging and the ACSM New England Chapter. He was recently honored with Lifetime Achievement awards from the International Association of Fitness Professionals and the Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports, and with the Healthy American Fitness Leader Award from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
ACE: How do you personally see the obesity epidemic affecting our society— from the healthcare system to relationships within families?
Wayne Westcott: I believe that the obesity epidemic is the greatest health problem facing our society. Excessive fat is undeniably associated with higher risk of elevated blood pressure, unfavorable blood lipid profiles, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, low-back pain, arthritis and premature death. As one example, the increase in the obese population is paralleled by the increase in the diabetic population, with experts estimating that 1 in every 3 American adults will have diabetes by the middle of this century. Clearly, our healthcare system cannot come close to dealing with a medical crisis of this magnitude. Unquestionably, physical health (or lack thereof) has a significant impact on mental health, and on family and social relationships, which renders the obesity epidemic even more problematic.
ACE: Of all the habits and environmental factors that lead people to obesity, which do you feel is the most challenging for them to overcome, and why?
Wayne Westcott: There are many causes of obesity. However, in my opinion, the major underlying problem is the lack of resistance exercise, which leads to muscle loss (5–10 pounds per decade); this in turn results in a reduction of resting metabolic rate (2%–4% per decade), which ultimately predicates fat accumulation (15–20 pounds per decade). With fad diets consistently generating media attention among millions of Americans annually, it should be obvious that the obesity epidemic is more complex than people simply eating too much food.
ACE: Why do you believe it’s important for parents, teachers, and athletes at all levels to make healthy lifestyles a priority in their own lives?
Wayne Westcott: I am a firm believer that high-status role models present a powerful influence on the lives of young people. Most youth strive to emulate at least some of the lifestyle characteristics of people (parents, teachers, athletes) they respect. High-status role models should therefore have a positive and productive influence on young people with respect to healthy choices in exercise and eating behavior.
ACE: What type of programming approaches—if any—have you found particularly effective (and why) when working with overweight or obese children?
Wayne Westcott: Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, and I have conducted numerous studies with obese and overweight preadolescent youth. Our research has demonstrated that one of the very few physical activities these children find reinforcing is resistance training. The immediate satisfaction is realizing that their large body size is not a negative factor with respect to resistance exercise, as it is in activities that require running, jumping, agility, acceleration and endurance. In fact, because of their larger body size, these youth typically lift heavier weights than their smaller peers. They are not stronger pound for pound, but they are thrilled to be at an absolute strength level equal or superior to their more fit peers. For once, they are among the best performers in class, rather than the opposite. Because we tend to enjoy activities we do well in, our dropout rate for overweight youth has been less than 5% over many years of conducting preadolescent strength training programs.
Another reason we recommend resistance training for children impacted by obesity is that, like adult resistance exercisers, they experience regular remodeling and building of muscle tissue following their training sessions, and as a result, both their active and their resting energy expenditures increase, and they lose fat. Interestingly, the most successful fat loss results for overweight youth have been attained in lifestyle interventions that included resistance exercise. In addition, strength training programs are relatively brief, with alternating periods of activity and recovery, which provides a good match for the physical abilities of obese children.
ACE: What advice would you give to people who may not know where to start when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle?
Wayne Westcott: If the answers to this question were simple, then people would make the appropriate decisions on their own. Since this is typically not the case, even with the enormous number of publications on exercise and weight loss, I submit that the best place to start is with a qualified health and fitness professional. A personal trainer or health coach who holds a certification accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies can provide both the appropriate information and the necessary mentorship to help an individual not only understand but effectively implement desirable lifestyle changes. In my opinion, there is no more important area in our field than enabling people impacted by obesity to experience reinforcing health and fitness through lifestyle changes (especially changes that help them incorporate appropriate physical activity).
Editor's Note: Bridging the Gap is a series of interviews conducted by ACE with professionals throughout the fitness and allied health industries, as well as our partners in the corporate world. ACE hopes this column will start a conversation among those entities about the impact of the obesity epidemic and how we can all work together to eliminate it by 2035.