By: J. Justin Wilson
Newspaper: The Birmingham News 

When you consider the massive amounts of food that some Olympians eat, feeding the Olympic Games looks like a titanic task. The numbers are staggering: Organizers expect to prepare over 220,000 pounds of meat, 500,000 pounds of potatoes and about 42,000 pounds of eggs for the athletes in the Olympic Village.

But aren’t those foods high in calories? Despite eating quite large portions of food and even drinking sports drinks that the nation’s food police are trying to take out of our reach, Olympians are quite healthy and trim, which should teach us some lessons about health, weight and physical activity.

Take, for instance, champion swimmer Ryan Lochte, who will compete in nine events in London. According to the oversimplified food police model of health, Lochte should be buying two airline seats and getting around the airport in an obesity scooter, not a gold medalist challenging for more glory. He, like Beijing Olympics hero Michael Phelps, reportedly eats anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 calories per day when training, roughly the calorie load of three to six large pizzas.

Compounding this nutritional heresy, Lochte reportedly includes sports drinks, steak, eggs and bacon in his diet. He’s hardly alone. The British newspaper The Telegraph reported that athletes in many sports routinely consume far more than the usual adult recommendation of 2,000 calories per day, and they aren’t all subsisting on industrial quantities of spinach and tofu.

Of course, Olympians can eat that much because they train like world-class athletes. One report said Lochte swims more than the distance of two marathons — over 50 miles — per week. And that’s not all the training he does. All that training burns a lot of calories, and keeps Olympians lean and at the top of their game.

Now, many of us have sit-down office jobs and can’t spend one-seventh of our lives in the pool. But we certainly could get off the couch more. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 20 percent of American adults get the recommended amount of exercise.

And that’s not a terribly high bar to clear: only three one-hour sessions of moderate aerobic activity and two muscle strengthening sessions per week—and gardening counts for both, depending on whether or not you’re digging. You don’t have to run, much less swim a marathon and still most Americans come up short.

We have a lot to gain from taking up more physical activity. A recent study by researchers from Harvard and the CDC published in the medical journal The Lancet estimated that inactivity leads to 5.3 million deaths worldwide each year. That echoes a British Journal of Sports Medicine commentary that found that “obese men who were moderately/highly fit had less than half the risk of dying than the normal-weight men who were unfit.”

There are, to be sure, weight loss benefits to exercise too. Researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases surveyed the government’s National Weight Control Registry and found that physical activity was one of two primary methods that helped people who lost weight keep it off. (The other was frequent weight checks.) The lesson is the same as the lesson from the athletes: Calories burned through physical activity matter as much as calories consumed.

But while almost everybody hates dieting, almost everybody can find some kind of physical activity that is enjoyable. Although most people think of exercise in, well, “Olympic” terms — like running, swimming or cycling — it comes in many forms besides those that may be more fun. Walking the dog, carrying your golf bag and dancing can all make positive impacts without the hassle of dieting or “exercise.”

Before turning to government-level controls on our diets, we should try affirming personal responsibility in physical activity. Even simple changes like walking short distances instead of driving and playing active games instead of watching television can make an impact, and we might enjoy making those changes. That sounds a lot more appealing and far more effective than a mandatory diet.