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Conquering the “Obesogenic” Environment

Barbara Brehm-Curtis is a professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she teaches courses in stress management, nutrition and health. Aside from writing about health and fitness-related topics for more than 25 years, she has worked as a fitness instructor, personal trainer, lifestyle coach and fitness program director. She has received the San Diego County Medical Society Media Award and was a Maggie Award finalist for regular columns in Fitness Management, where she served as a contributing editor. Brehm is a co-author of Applied Sports Medicine for Coaches (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2008) and the author of several other books, including Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies (Human Kinetics 2004).

ACE: In your role as an author and a professor, what would you say is the biggest challenge we as a society face in overcoming the obesity epidemic?

Barbara Brehm-Curtis: The biggest challenge we as a society face is our obesogenic environment. We have succeeded in engineering physical activity out of daily life and in providing most people with abundant opportunities to overeat the wrong kinds of food. As a society, we also contribute to the obesity epidemic by promoting high-stress lifestyles. Cultivating a healthy lifestyle is like swimming upstream in a strong current. For many people, healthy behaviors like eating well and exercising seem out of reach.

ACE: In your day-to-day life, how do you see the impact of the obesity epidemic in the material you teach, the lives of your friends and family, or the people you pass on the street?

Barbara Brehm-Curtis: Research continues to link obesity, especially excess visceral adipose stores, to a wide range of chronic health problems. The more we study obesity, the more concerned we become about the impact it has on health. I find myself discussing obesity, and the behaviors that contribute to it, more frequently in all of my classes.

Another obesity-related issue I see a great deal of in my work with young people is disordered eating. As a culture, Americans are very confused about food. Add to this the common adolescent concerns about appearance, and you get problems. Despite the rise in average size, desirable size is still thin. An obesogenic environment combined with a lean-body ideal creates a difficult situation for vulnerable young people.

In my own life, I watch my friends who are parents struggle to do the right thing for their children. It’s a hard burden for families to bear. Kids want the same foods their friends have, school lunches are often not as nutritious as they could be, and junk food is everywhere. Parents are busy, stressed and often overweight themselves. How can parents guide their children in this upstream swim without wrecking a child’s self-esteem? There are no easy answers. Parents can establish good habits at home, but this is often not enough.

ACE: What information do you feel we need to start communicating to aspiring fitness professionals so they can accurately connect with their overweight and obese clients?

Barbara Brehm-Curtis: Educational institutions and organizations that train fitness professionals have traditionally done a fine job of teaching anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics and exercise prescription. Aspiring fitness professionals certainly need to be well versed in these areas and must be able to create safe and effective exercise programs for their clients. However, the most effective exercise programs in the world accomplish nothing if clients don’t follow them. For this reason, fitness professionals need to develop a deep understanding of the psychology of health and fitness in order to motivate clients to create positive change in their lives.

In addition to designing exercise programs, fitness professionals must acquire the knowledge and skills to act as health coaches. Health coaches work closely with their clients to understand the many factors contributing to client motivation—and to help clients craft strategies for successful lifestyle change. For example, ACE’s Health Coach Certification represents a needed departure from traditional fitness certifications that have emphasized the “here’s what you should do” approach. Such an approach fails to meet the needs of many potential clients, especially clients struggling with obesity. Many people know what they should do; they just can’t figure out how to do it.

ACE: What role do you feel self-confidence and stress play in keeping people from achieving their behavior change goals?

Barbara Brehm-Curtis: Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Perhaps the hardest task that fitness professionals face is helping clients with low self-confidence change their thinking about their abilities. When low self-confidence is confined to the physical-abilities domain, fitness professionals can help clients experience success in their exercise efforts. Obese clients who have never enjoyed exercise may be surprised to discover that they are perfectly capable of exercising regularly once they find activities that they enjoy, or at least don’t hate.

Stress is a leading cause of relapse for people trying to change health behaviors. It depletes the energy that people have available for self-regulation, a skill critical for sticking to behavior-change plans. People often experience stress as fatigue and, as a result, get “too tired to exercise.” In addition, when they feel stressed, people look for ways to feel better. Many fall back into the negative health behaviors they are trying to change, if these feel comfortable: overeating, watching TV or using substances such as tobacco and alcohol.

ACE: How do you feel people can overcome those obstacles to achieve their fitness goals?

Barbara Brehm-Curtis: Success breeds success. As people with low self-confidence find themselves exercising regularly, they begin to feel better about themselves and become more likely to value the effect that exercise has on their lives. Fitness professionals must set clients up for success with realistic, achievable behavior-change recommendations.

People who make regular physical activity a habit often learn that they feel better when they exercise regularly. Once they make this connection, they may become more likely to turn to exercise when they feel stressed, rather than excusing themselves from exercising because they are too tired. People will be more likely to develop this connection if they get something out of physical activity. Activities must be enjoyable, provide social opportunities or at least make people feel better later in the day.

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