Health Hazards of Being a Couch Potato

If you’re a couch potato with an expansive waistline, listen up. I have a story for you.

Just before a 48-year-old patient came into my office, I looked over his records.  When I last saw him eight years ago, he seemed pretty fit.  Now, however, he didn’t look anything at all like I remembered.  He had gained 32 lbs., mostly around his middle, due to physical inactivity from sitting at his computer all day and no longer exercising. His daily 700+ calorie frappuccino didn’t help either.  “I know I should do more, Doc, but my tennis elbow got in the way and, by the way, I feel just fine. The only reason I’m here today?  My wife made me come.”

Thank goodness for his wife’s insistence because after my examination and a few simple blood tests, it was clear that he was a classic example of someone with metabolic syndrome.

What is metabolic syndrome?
Linked to obesity and physical inactivity, metabolic syndrome is now an epidemic in the U.S., having become the major health threat of the 21st century. It is the most frequent cause of increasing your chance of having a heart attack, diabetes, or a stroke. In fact, it may well overtake smoking as a cause of these maladies.
It is estimated that 50 million Americans are affected, and the numbers continu to rise. This is consistent with a recent study involving nearly one million people in North America that revealed a twofold increase in heart attacks and cardiac mortality and a fivefold increase in diabetes.  Another complication suggested by an excellent study in an endocrine journal indicated an increased incidence of low testosterone levels and erectile dysfunction.

If you have three or more of the following 5 risk factors, you have metabolic syndrome:

  1. A large waistline, i.e. abdominal obesity or an “apple shape”.
  2. A high triglyceride (greater than 150 mg/dl).
  3. A low HDL (high-density lipoprotein: “good” cholesterol, less than 40 in a man and less than 50 in a woman).
  4. A higher than normal blood pressure (averaging more that 135/85).
  5. A higher than normal fasting blood sugar (greater than 100 mg/dl).

Most of these metabolic risk factors have no signs or symptoms, but if you have abdominal obesity – greater than 40” for men and 35” for women – and an inactive lifestyle, it is worth consulting with your doctor for further testing.  If your doctor diagnoses you with metabolic syndrome, he or she will be able to advise you on what to do to avoid serious complications.

How do you treat metabolic syndrome? The first line of treatment involves lifestyle changes:
  • Lose 7-10% of your body weight.  For example, if you weigh 250 lbs., you need to lose 18 to 25 lbs. Cut back on the white stuff: potatoes, bread, pasta, white rice. Eat smaller portions.
  • Favor fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and oily fish.  Avoid processed food, sweets, and transfats.
  • Commit to regular exercise, at least 35 to 45 minutes of moderate intensity 5 days a week, including aerobic, muscle strengthening, and stretching.  But before you begin, it’s best to get clearance from your doctor regarding just what degree of intensity would be good for you.
  • Still smoking?  Quit!

If your doctor feels these lifestyle changes are insufficient, you may need medication to control unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and high sugar. If you see yourself as a likely candidate for this syndrome, you will absolutely benefit from preemptive action. The truth is everybody knows the drill: eat the right food and exercise.  For those with metabolic syndrome, it’s no longer just interesting reading – it’s crucial to your well-being to pay attention.

The patient I spoke of earlier did get with the program, losing 22 lbs. in three months.  His blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and sugar metabolism returned to normal without medications. His success was largely due to making a realistic plan that he could actually stick to.  And while he didn’t eliminate the frappuccinos entirely, he did limit them to just one a week.


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