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Americans Are Joining Gyms Like Crazy, But We're Still Fatter Than Ever

We’re joining gyms in droves and spending huge amounts of money to slim down our national waistline. It’s not working.

Well, guys, we’ve got some bad news: Despite our best efforts, it seems America’s obesity problem isn’t going away.

The statistics are grim: Some 35% of American men, 40% of American women, and 17% of American teens and children are considered clinically obese, meaning a body mass index (BMI) 30 and up, according to a major new survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worse yet, 5.5% of men and 9.9% of women are morbidly obese (BMI of 40+).

That’s the highest obesity rate ever for women and children during the past decade, while obesity rates in men have stayed about the same since peaking in 2004, according to two new reports on obesity prevalence published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The reports analyzed data from more than 5,000 middle-aged adults and children aged 2–19, who were surveyed in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys in 1988-1994 and 2013-2014.

But here’s the really scary part: We're doing and spending more than ever to combat our expanding waistlines, and it’s not working.

“The news is neither good nor surprising,” study authors Jody W. Sylke, M.D., and Howard Bauchner, M.D., write in a JAMA editorial accompanying the studies. “Numerous foundations, industries, professional societies, and governmental agencies have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to support basic science research in obesity, clinical trials, and observational studies, development of new drugs and devices, and hospital and community programs to help stem the tide of the obesity epidemic.”

All this is in spite of the fact that Americans are flocking to gyms (or at least opening their wallets there). About 54.1 million Americans belonged to at least one of the 34,460 health clubs nationwide in 2014, waaay up from 41.3 million gymgoers at 26,830 clubs in 2005, according to some rough data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a big industry group for health clubs and gyms.

Boutique gyms, like Soulcycle, Flywheel, and OrangeTheory, have exploded in popularity, too. CrossFit was still in its infancy in 2005; now, there are more CrossFit boxes (and imitators) nationwide—7,000—than there are Taco Bells.

So yeah. We’ve spent more money on gyms, only to get fatter.

"The obesity epidemic in the United States is now three decades old, and huge investments have been made in research, clinical care, and development of various programs to counteract obesity. However, few data suggest the epidemic is diminishing," the authors add.

Granted: BMI is relatively inaccurate measure of body composition, because it simply compares height and weight, and not muscle or fat content. A muscle-bound bodybuilder who stands 5’11” and weighs 220 pounds, for example, has the same BMI—30.7, technically obese—as a flabby dude with the same height and weight: (You can easily figure out your BMI via this handy calculator from the National Institutes of Health.)

But even if you factor in all the Dwayne Johnsons out there—and they’re obvious outliers—America’s obesity epidemic is a major problem with several other dangerous implications for public health: Obese people are at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and, in men, colon and prostate cancer, according to a paper from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

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