Over the years, countless research studies have solidified the importance of exercise in the wellbeing of both body and mind. Although these studies may not provide conclusive results right away, they build a crucial foundation for deeper dives into our exercise, diet, wellbeing and the connection among the three. Here’s a quick summary of the key fitness research studies published this year, which are shaping the public health dialogue across the U.S.
Cross-cultural comparisons of fitness fail
An international study out of the University of Southern California explored physical fitness levels through fitness tracking devices, uncovering interesting findings about our perceptions of fitness.
More than 500 participants from the U.S., England and the Netherlands were asked to rate their fitness level on a 5-pont scale. Equipped with each participant’s fitness tracker data, the researchers were able to monitor their real fitness levels for seven days. The findings? Americans were a bit more likely to report extreme levels of activity or inactivity, while the English and Dutch leaned more toward reporting moderate fitness levels.
But here’s the most interesting finding: the fitness trackers showed Americans were actually significantly less active than the other two groups, even though they reported the highest levels of activity. The fitness tracker data also revealed that fitness declined among all participants as they aged, though it was more prominent and widespread in the U.S., where 60% of older adults were inactive. And of all participants, those who rated themselves on the extreme ends of the spectrum were typically less active (according to their fitness tracker) than everyone else in the study.
The findings revealed that fitness doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and that elements like culture and age play a huge role in our actual levels of fitness. After all, the Dutch bike and walk a lot, and Statistics Netherlands reports that 30% of Dutch households don’t own a car. Compare that to American society, where we drive cars to the market down the street, and it’s easy to see why ideas about fitness, and your own fitness levels, might differ depending on where you call home.
Weight loss isn’t about calories
Counting and cutting calories has long been touted as the secret to weight loss. But these practices can often send dieters on an up and down journey. Counting calories can also fuel a love-hate relationship with our bodies as we obsess over every number—from calories to number of bites to the number on the scale.
A new study released in 2018 suggests what many of us may have already known: diet matters. And when we say “diet,” we don’t mean the slew of fads advocating low-carb, high-fat or high-protein. Your diet is defined as what you choose to eat, and this study shows that a nutritious diet beats calorie counting any way you slice it.
The standard American diet—otherwise known as the SAD diet—is full of highly processed foods and sugar. Regardless of how few calories you eat, It appears this diet is driving the American obesity epidemic, which reached a record high last year.
In the study, people who reduced their intake of added sugars, refined grains and highly-processed foods and replaced them with more vegetables and whole foods experienced significant weight loss within a year—without counting calories or engaging in DNA-based diets.
Dementia linked to lower fitness levels
Dementia is a growing problem around the world. The World Health Organization reports that 50 million people are affected by it, and around 10 million new cases are diagnosed every year. In the U.S., Alzheimer’s is one of the most common forms of dementia, affecting 5.4 million people. This, in turn, has caused researchers to seek out what’s driving this dangerous development.
This particular study was just published in the medical journal Neurology, but it goes much further back. In 1968, a team of researchers set out to examine whether high levels of fitness could be linked to lower levels of dementia. They measured the cardio fitness of 191 Swedish women with a cycling test. The women, aged 38-60, were then put into three groups based on low, medium or high levels of fitness.
Researchers followed up with the women after 44 years to again test their fitness levels and mental function. The results? More than 20% of the women had developed dementia during that time period, and 45% of those who had developed dementia also had low levels of cardio fitness. Among those with high fitness levels, dementia onset was typically 11 years later. The study showed that women with high stamina and high cardio fitness levels had an 88% lower chance of developing dementia later in life than those who partook in only casual workouts.
The sample group may have been small, but it laid a crucial foundation for future research. And it reminds us all of the importance of ongoing fitness at every stage of life—whether you’re a Dutch participant in a tracker study, a senior citizen in the dementia experiment or a dieter wondering whether counting calories is really the answer to your weight loss woes.