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Study examines fitness, obesity

Deborah Walton Smith is a nurse practitioner whose study of overweight and obese patients showed 39 percent exercised regularly. (Dan Pelle)
Deborah Walton Smith is a nurse practitioner whose study of overweight and obese patients showed 39 percent exercised regularly. (Dan Pelle)

Research says findings show overweight people aren’t lazy

Don’t call them couch potatoes.

A new study conducted in Spokane shows overweight people are exercising and trying to get healthy.

“Our research showed a group of people who are trying,” said Deborah Walton Smith, a senior lecturer at Gonzaga University and a family nurse practitioner at a clinic in north Spokane. Her work, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, was conducted while she was earning a doctorate through Case Western Reserve University.

The study relied on questionnaires answered by 175 people from Spokane who were patients of family nurse practitioners at two local clinics. All were overweight – including more than half who would be considered obese.

Walton Smith called the exercise efforts a surprise offering glimmers of hope. Not much is known, she said, about the exercise habits of overweight Americans who see family nurse practitioners for primary care.

She said the study should help dispel the notion that overweight people are lazy. She recounted patients considered obese who work jobs where they are on their feet much of the day.

“I just have a tremendous respect for my patients and this research confirms that these are people who care and want to improve their health,” she said.

The survey found that 39 percent of the study participants reported that they exercise regularly. Another 25 percent reported that they were preparing to begin an exercise program – not just thinking about how to do it. Another 21 percent were contemplating an exercise regimen. About 12 percent had no intention of starting to exercise.

These were encouraging numbers, Walton Smith said. It’s important for doctors and nurses to nudge their overweight but willing-to-exercise patients toward a regular physical activity schedule, and then formulate plans for follow-up visits.

About 73 percent of the patients said that despite being overweight or obese, they had no medical reason that would prevent them from exercises. Walton Smith said this showed a group that, for the most part, was amenable to some kind of exercise, even if it was light lifting or short walks.

The study’s importance can be measured against this backdrop: Obesity rates in the United States have soared to 34 percent of the population. It’s a medical condition that causes 300,000 premature deaths each year from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the costs are enormous. Treating obesity-related diseases costs more than $100 billion a year.

As the obesity epidemic hits full stride as one of the nation’s most serious health threats, study after study shows how diet and exercise can reverse the trends.

In one study cited in the research, exercise and diet can reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes in the obese population by 58 percent – even without weight loss. It’s a fit-but-fat scenario that can lessen at least some of the grave consequence of being obese.

Walton Smith’s research was overseen by Mary Quinn Griffin and Joyce Fitzpatrick, academic advisers from Case Western.

Half of the study group had a body mass index above 31. The rest had a BMI of between 25 and 31. A BMI score of 30 and higher is considered obese.

All of the study participants were older than 40.

About 72 percent were women. They tended to be less affluent yet better educated than the average person in Spokane.

The research, which was peer reviewed before publication, noted that Spokane and the Pacific Northwest have a culture of fitness-related events and that about half of households have a dog – two things credited with helping people to exercise.

The participants received a $5 gift card to a coffee shop.