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Expand chart
Data: Obesity, NCHS National Health Interview Survey. Gym memberships, IHRSA Global Report. Stress, APA Stress in America Survey; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Between Soul Cycle, Fitbit, Whole30 diets and social media health gurus, the health and wellness industry is booming — but Americans are more likely to be obese today than ever before.

The problem: Despite promises made by gyms and fitness programs, physical activity does little to help people lose weight, says Ashkan Afshin from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. And Americans' diets are still terrible.

It’s the only disease that we put the blame on the patient and remove it from the health care provider.
— Fatima Cody Stanford, obesity medicine physician scientist, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

One key trend: The prevalence of diseases most attributed to obesity — high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol — has held steady or even fallen over the past few years, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • But that's mostly due to increased treatment for those conditions, health experts say.

Meanwhile, obesity has created a thriving industry in the U.S., even though many programs have little medical or scientific backing.

The U.S. fitness industry is the most lucrative in the world, bringing in $30 billion worth of revenue in 2017, according to the latest report by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) — a global trade association for the fitness industry.

  • Since 2008, the number of gym members has increased by more than 33% in the U.S., according to the same report.
  • The commercial weight loss program market was worth $2.77 billion in 2016 and was expected to grow 9.4% to $3.03 billion in 2017, according to Marketdata.
  • Fitbit's consumers have grown from 500,000 to more than 25 million in just 5 years, according to data collected by Statista.
  • Fitness apps and wearables overall are projected to be used by 16.4% of people in the market by 2023, up from 15.7% in 2016, per Statista.

But food is the key problem when it comes to obesity, according to Afshin.

  • "Data shows there is increased availability, affordability and accessibility of high energy-dense foods," Afshin said. And many Americans are eating more than their bodies need.
  • More than a third of Americans eat fast food every day — an industry notorious for high caloric, low nutrition meals — and only 1 in 10 eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, per CDC.
  • Eat better, not less: Stanford argues that eating less isn't always the solution either. Some dietitians argue that the quality of the food matters more than the number of calories.

Three other key contributors to obesity that often get overlooked:

  • Stress has been shown to induce weight gain even without any changes to diet or exercise, as the human body turns to survival mode and begins storing up energy.
  • Lack of sleep, especially high-quality sleep, also causes weight gain. Stanford said that the fact that "we live and eat and breathe with our phones" has had a detrimental impact.
  • Medications often cause weight gain as well, and patients are not always aware of the side effect.

The bottom line: "Our bodies are now supportive of an environment that really supports obesity," Stanford said. Meanwhile, the medical community and insurance regulations are slow to help obese patients until they've been diagnosed with other serious health issues associated with the disease.

Go deeper

Updated 52 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.