By Trice Whitefield

Background footage for obesity-related news reports often features shots of bulging bellies surrounded by a predictable assortment of dietary hooligans: french fries, ice cream, burgers and other tasty fare. As these images suggest, health officials, nutrition advocacy organizations and weight-loss “experts” blame these “bad” foods for our excess weight.

But the cause of obesity isn’t what you think.
In the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind, research published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association found that fewer than a third of U.S. teens meet the minimum recommended amount of exercise. It gets worse: On weekends, teens move, on average, a mere 35 minutes per day. And even though these figures are only the latest addition to a growing body of evidence — confirming that inactivity is a major factor in our health — the study’s lead author explained that “people don’t recognize this as the crisis that it is.”

And there’s a good reason for that. Dietary scaremongers have monopolized the public’s attention. Sure, there have been some changes between modern meals and those of our grandparents. But overall nutrition in the ’50s and ’60s (when there were half as many restaurants and far fewer convenience foods) was far from superior to our own. Fifty years ago, most Americans ate a high-fat, high-cholesterol and high-sugar diet.

The dietary difference between generations isn’t remarkable. The change in activity is.

Technological advancements have undeniably influenced our lifestyles and, consequently, our waistlines too. According to a study by Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. James Levine in Science magazine, the mechanization of society — replacing manual tasks with machines — has decreased physical activity. That absence leaves us with a daily surplus of 100-200 calories, unused energy that “potentially could account for the entire obesity epidemic.”

Other experts agree. Researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas determined that by forgoing automated assistance (like mechanized car washes and riding lawn mowers) in our daily chores, we could increase monthly energy expenditure by almost 9,000 calories — the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of body fat. The study’s lead author suggested that “inactivity is the major public health problem of this century.”
But for such a major concern, inactivity barely catches a blip on the public’s radar.

For most of us, the term “obesity” doesn’t conjure images of drive-through car washes. That makes sense given that most campaigns about weight gain fixate on a different kind of drive-though: fast food.
From Los Angeles (where city council members aim to outlaw new fast-food restaurants) to New York (where the Department of Health is trying to guilt consumers into eating low-calorie lunches), lawmakers are eagerly pushing food-focused schemes. But the best solution isn’t dietary regulation. It’s individual motivation.

Simply move more. Walk your dog, wash your car, dance, vacuum, garden or shop. Almost anything counts, as long as you’re going. Though small, these adjustments offer big benefits for your health.
Food may be a sensational target. It’s just not the right one.

Whitefield is a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom.