Bridging the Gap
Behavior change is the secret to unlocking potential and power to change.
Kara A. Witzke, PhD, leads the exercise and sport science program at Oregon State University-Cascades. Her work in the health and fitness industry spans more than 20 years and has included positions in personal training, cardiac rehabilitation, workplace wellness, fitness certification, weight management, education and research. Most recently, her research has focused on the effects of exercise on musculoskeletal and metabolic systems through funding from the National Institutes of Health. She has been published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Diabetes Care and the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolism, and as an expert contributor in book chapters for ACE and other organizations. She holds a master’s degree in human performance from California State University, Fullerton, and a doctorate in exercise and sport science from Oregon State University.
ACE: How do you personally see the obesity epidemic affecting our society?
Kara A. Witzke: The complications associated with obesity include a host of comorbid diseases that can cause a never-ending downward spiral of illness, poor quality of life and financial stress associated with time off work and high medical-care costs. These issues alone can have a profound impact on a family, not to mention the effects on our nation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the medical costs for people who are obese are $1,429 higher per year than for people of normal weight! Think about this financial impact on a family and then multiply that times the nearly 36% of our population who are obese. In the U.S., we spend over $147 billion each year to treat the complications of obesity. That’s an enormous number with far-reaching implications for our families and our society as a whole.
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?
Kara A. Witzke: In its simplest form, obesity merely represents an imbalance in the outcomes of our behavioral choices (intake vs. output). I think it is behaviors, pure and simple, that have created our problem. It is true that our “obesogenic” environment plays a role in making it more challenging to make the right choices for our health, but it still boils down to our daily choice as individuals to put our health, rather than convenience, first. Aside from our food choices, however, I believe that people just sit too much. Research shows that merely “not sitting” for long periods has positive impacts on weight and health. I always tell people trying to figure out how to adopt a new fitness program to start by not sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time. Get up and move around, walk to meetings, take the stairs and park far away. Unplanned, unstructured exercise certainly “counts” as physical activity.
ACE: Why do you believe it’s important for parents, teachers and even competitive athletes to make a healthy lifestyle a priority in their own lives?
Kara A. Witzke: I strongly believe that good health begins at home. It’s the early role models at home who give children the input that forms the basis for their own choices regarding what they eat and how important exercise is to them personally. If parents do not demonstrate that they value healthy habits, then why would their children adopt these on their own at a young age? Later on, teachers and athletes can serve as powerful role models to children as they begin to form their own identities and make their own lifestyle choices, but by this time, a child’s value system may already dictate which messages get through and make the biggest impact. Adoption of a healthy lifestyle and prioritization of good habits have to start early at home.
ACE: What misconceptions—if any— do you believe health and fitness professionals have about people who may be struggling with their weight or adopting healthy habits?
Kara A. Witzke: Many health and fitness professionals have mastered the art of judgment. We often believe that people struggling with their weight deep down must not want to change--or they just lack the willpower to do so. It's sometimes very challenging for those of us who love health and fitness to understand why anyone would not want to adopt the lifestyle that we know can bring so much satisfaction. This is especially true in areas of the country where an active lifestyle is so common.
My undergraduate students often struggle with the realization that less than 20% of people meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity. They don’t understand why anyone would “choose” to be obese and sedentary. Many times, however, those who have battled their weight also struggle with things not related to diet or fitness. There may be underlying personal issues that are manifesting themselves in the physical body. Dealing with these issues is often the secret to unlocking an individual’s potential and power to change. I believe we need to teach health and fitness professionals the power of empathy and compassion first, before we teach them how to conduct assessments or write an exercise program.
ACE: What advice would you give to people who may not know where to start when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle?
Kara A. Witzke: Anyone who is trying to adopt a lifestyle change needs support. This support can come in many forms: support groups, group-fitness classes, a skilled health coach or personal trainer, a spouse or family members, or understanding and supportive friends. Rarely do individuals who successfully implement a behavior change as large as adopting a healthy lifestyle, do so completely on their own. Somewhere along the line they make the jump from “contemplation” to “action,” and that usually means getting someone else involved.
I once heard that if you want to be “skinny,” you should do what a skinny person does. While that is a little simplistic, I think it makes complete sense that if we want to adopt a healthy lifestyle, we need to surround ourselves with those who have successfully done this. Recovering alcoholics should not hang out with active alcoholics; they need to create an environment that supports the changes they are trying to implement. The same goes for someone trying to adopt a healthy lifestyle, including a proper diet and exercise routine.