Modifying Our Environment Could Slow or Reverse Obesity Trend: Changes in the Home, Workplace, School, Community-Even in Clothing and Dishware-Could Increase Our Level of Physical Activity and Help Us Make Better Food Choices

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Is it possible for us to make behavioral changes and live more healthful lives even though we have grown up in a supersize-me environment? Experts are cautiously optimistic that the trend toward overweight and obesity can be slowed--and perhaps even halted and reversed.

This issue was addressed at the College of Human Ecology's Ecology of Obesity conference held June 6 and 7, 2005. In the conference session titled "Environment and Obesity," Nancy Wells, conference co-chair and an assistant professor in Human Ecology's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis and the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center, explained how the "food environment" contributes to overeating and obesity. "While evolution has equipped us to store fat on our bodies for times of adversity, we now live in a world of abundance and of large portions. The Hershey bar has gone from 2 ounces to 7 ounces. Several studies have shown that large plates, large portions, and large packages influence people to eat more," she said.

But the food environment can be reconfigured to support healthy habits, Wells added, showing a picture of a vending machine in a Cornell campus building filled with fresh, appealing apples and other healthful snacks instead of candy bars.

Ironically, the College of Human Ecology, in which Wells studies health issues, inadvertently may have contributed to today's obesity problem. "The College of Home Economics, as it was previously known, helped engineer physical activity out of daily lives," Wells said, pointing to the step-saving "Cornell kitchen triangle" that put housekeeping equipment within easier reach. "This labor-saving research was directed toward hard-working farm wives," Wells said, "and this technology reduced the energy expenditure to wash clothes, dry clothes, and clean floors. The reduction of homemaking labor is paralleled in the workplace. We spend a great deal of time at the computer, and we send e-mails rather than walking to a colleague's office. The challenge," she said, "is to use technology to redesign physical activity back into our lives."


Susan Ashdown, an associate professor in Human Ecology's Department of Textiles and Apparel, scans volunteers' bodies with a computer-based imaging system to learn more about sizing and fit of clothing. Ashdown said that the way we see ourselves in this new image-capture technology can be motivating. "An image of oneself can be a powerful incentive for weight loss or maintenance. Now we are asking ourselves, how can body scanning help us understand the complexities of self image and weight loss and gain?"

Our most proximate environment, the apparel surrounding our bodies, can either encourage exercise or discourage it, Ashdown added. Having to wear business attire to work is a convenient excuse for not riding a bicycle or climbing the stairs. On the other hand, she said, developments in sportswear materials and design "make it easier for elite athletes to explore and expand the boundaries of human capability in physical activity, and these designs are also available for the weekend warrior."


Clothing can be designed to provide feedback about movement and even motivate activity, Ashdown pointed out, as she displayed children's sneakers that light up with each step. Lindsay Lyman-Clarke, a Textiles and Apparel graduate student, created an even more whimsical garment: superhero capes with wrist-mounted pinwheels that spin when the children run. For multitasking adults, Ashdown said, "There's a solar-powered jacket that encourages people to engage in outdoor activities while charging their technological devices."

Ashdown and Wells also discussed ways that enlightened building design can play a greater role in helping people become more active. Noting that elevators are usually much more attractive than stairways, they discussed studies that show how adding artwork and music to stairwells encourages usage. …