Obesity, Nutrition, and Physical Activity

A healthy body weight, good nutrition, and physical activity can help prevent or manage serious and chronic cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. A healthy weight can also help reduce the risk of certain lung and sleep conditions, such as asthma and sleep apnea. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) collaborates with other NIH institutes and partners to advance research related to obesity, nutrition, and physical activity.

Research Making a Difference

Research Making a Difference

A lack of access to resources, like healthy foods or health clinics, is a major roadblock."
Scientific advances that benefit the public health are only as good as their ability to reach the public. Oftentimes, though, the people most at need for those interventions and advances–such as inner city African-American communities—are also the most difficult to reach.
Senior couple bicycling.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT

Over the past 30 years, rates of obesity have increased and remain high for adults and children. More than one-third of U.S. adults and about 17 percent of children are now obese.

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Line graphy depicting the Rates of Adult and Child Obesity in the United States from 1971-2014.
The prevalence of obesity among U.S. adults and children, aged 2 to 19, has more than doubled between 1971 and 2014. Adult obesity rates, shown in blue, were 14.5 percent in 1971 and 38.2 percent in 2014. Child obesity rates, shown in red, were 5.2 percent in 1971 and 17.2 percent in 2014. The dotted lines represent periods in which national survey data are missing. These age-adjusted data are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

Overweight and obesity are highly prevalent in some racial and ethnic minority groups. Rates of obesity in American adults are highest in blacks, followed by Hispanics, then whites. 

A person’s sex may also affect the way the body stores fat. Obesity is more prevalent in women than in men, and obesity is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Read more about Women’s Health.

KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS
  • NHLBI studies address the increasing prevalence of obesity and translate findings into strategies to prevent or treat obesity and its health consequences.
  • We continue our longstanding commitment to educate the public, especially high-risk populations, about ways to prevent and treat obesity.
  • NHLBI research was featured in the Emmy-nominated HBO Documentary Films series on obesity, The Weight of the Nation.
  • The NHLBI Director co-chairs the NIH Obesity Research Task Force, which was organized to accelerate obesity research across all of NIH.
OPPORTUNITIES & CHALLENGES

In 2016, NHLBI released its Strategic Vision, which will guide the Institute’s research activities for the coming decade. Many of the objectives and compelling questions identified in the plan focus on obesity, nutrition, and physical activity. For example, researchers will look at ways to assess dietary intake and identify eating patterns and types of foods that contribute to maintaining a healthy weight. That examination may lead to new strategies that help lower risks of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

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NHLBI is also committed to advancing research on obesity, nutrition, and physical activity through collaboration across research disciplines and areas of expertise.

  • NHLBI formed its Obesity Working Group, which identifies NHLBI obesity-related priority research initiatives, collaborations, and national educational and policy activities.
  • The NHLBI director co-chairs the NIH Obesity Research Task Force, which accelerates progress in obesity research across several NIH institutes and components.
  • The NHLBI director co-chairs the NIH Nutrition Research Task Force, which guides the development of the first NIH-wide strategic plan for nutrition research being conducted over the next 10 years.
  • NHLBI actively participated in the process of setting objectives for Healthy People 2020.
  • NHLBI is an active member of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity (NCCOR), which is a public-private partnership to accelerate progress in reducing childhood obesity.

NHLBI-funded obesity, nutrition, and physical activity research continues to build on the legacy of contributions to the understanding of the causes, complications, and treatment of overweight and obesity. Our studies focus on a wide range of topics that include the following:

Discovering factors that increase a person’s risk for obesity

  • Improved Measures of Diet and Physical Activity Program Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative (GEI)

Understanding the effects of weight loss on cardiovascular disease risk factors

  • The PREMIER Study
  • The Preventing Overweight Using Novel Dietary Strategies Study (POUNDS LOST)

Understanding the growth patterns of children and how childhood obesity determines future health

  • The NHLBI Growth and Health Study (NGHS)
  • Studying interventions to help children and adolescents maintain a healthy weight
  • The Girl’s Health Enrichment Multi-site Studies (GEMS)
  • Trial of Activity for Adolescent Girls (TAAG)
  • Pathways

Assessing the effectiveness of different strategies designed to help people aim for a healthy weight

  • The Early Adult Reduction of Weight through LifestYle intervention (EARLY) Trials
  • The Study of Novel Approaches for Prevention (SNAP)
  • The Weight Loss Maintenance Trial (WLM)

Seeing whether strategies to aim for a healthy weight are effective in real-world settings, such as communities, schools, and work sites

  • Testing Worksite Interventions to Prevent or Control Overweight or Obesity

Advancing the Research

Learn about some of the NHLBI’s efforts to support and advance research on obesity, nutrition, and physical activity.

We Perform Research

NHLBI’s Division of Intramural Research, including its Laboratory of Obesity and Aging Research, is actively engaged in discovering new insights about obesity, nutrition, and physical activity that can lead to improved health care, practices, and policies to prevent or treat obesity and its health consequences. The Laboratory of Obesity and Metabolic Diseases Lab seeks to understand how obesity induces metabolic disorders.

We Fund Research

The NHLBI Division of Cardiovascular Sciences supports research on how overweight and obesity relate to heart disease and research on interventions to reduce or maintain body weight and reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors. The Center for Translation Research and Implementation Science supports the translation and implementation of research, including obesity research, into clinical practice. The Division of Lung Diseases and its National Center for Sleep Disorders Research supports research on sleep and sleep disorders, including the interplay between obesity and lifestyle and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

The Promise of Precision Medicine

Through NHLBI’s Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) program, researchers will use data from studies focused on heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders to better predict, prevent, diagnose, and treat obesity based on a patient’s unique genes, environment, and molecular signatures. Learn more about NHLBI precision medicine activities.

Leading Women’s Health Research

The NHLBI’s Women’s Health Initiative Strong and Healthy Study (WHISH) is a large clinical trial investigating the health benefits of a physical activity program in older women who participate in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) extension study. The recently completed Objective Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health Study (OPACH) used wearable devices to discover characteristics of physical activity important for maintenance of cardiovascular health in older women.

Providing Family-Based Weight Loss Treatment

The Primary Care Pediatrics Learning Activity and Nutrition With Families (PLAN) studies the effect of a behavioral weight control intervention in centralized primary care settings for children, their parents, and siblings who are overweight or obese. This trial will provide important information regarding the effectiveness of using a family-based treatment for childhood obesity in primary care settings.

Coordinating Efforts to Address Childhood Obesity

The Childhood Obesity Prevention & Treatment Research (COPTR) Consortium tests interventions that slow weight gain in children. Interventions target home, school, community youth organizations, and primary care settings for children who live in low income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. The goal is to prevent obesity-related cardiovascular disease risk factors in children.

Refining Ways to Reduce Behaviors that Contribute to Obesity

The NHLBI and other NIH Institutes led the Obesity Related Behavioral Intervention Trials (ORBIT) to translate findings from basic research on human behavior into interventions that can change obesity-related health behaviors. These studies included families and a variety of demographic groups. A key finding from one study focuses on the importance of targeting psychological factors in obesity treatment.

Understanding the Relationship Between Community Programs and Policies and Children’s Health

The Healthy Communities Study (HCS) explored how characteristics of programs and policies are related to children’s weight, diet, and activity levels in diverse communities across the country. Findings from this study suggest that the amount, kind, and duration of community programs and policies makes a meaningful difference in childhood obesity.

Collecting Data on Obesity, Nutrition, and Physical Activity

NHLBI-funded population studies are also collecting data on obesity, nutrition, and physical activity. For example, the Framingham Heart Study identified common factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease across generations. The Jackson Heart Study investigated the causes of cardiovascular disease in African-Americans to learn how best to prevent these diseases. The Strong Heart Study examined cardiovascular disease and its risk factors among American Indian men and women.

Programs and Resources for Obesity Prevention and Treatment

The NHLBI has supported evidence-based health education programs to promote healthy lifestyle changes, such as heart-healthy eating and physical activity, to prevent obesity and obesity-related cardiovascular complications. Visit Aim for a Healthy Weight for tools to help you aim for and maintain a healthy weight. Use our We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition) resources to help children maintain a healthy weight. If you are looking for medical school curricula resources to improve clinical care training, view the NAA Nutrition Curriculum Guide for Training Physicians from our Nutrition Academic Award (NAA) Program.

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