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Memorial alumnus helps men avoid trappings of obesity

FaceForward: The People and Stories of Memorial
By Elizabeth Furey | April 28, 2014

Mike Wahl believes in training for life. A graduate of Memorial’s master of kinesiology program and current PhD candidate with Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine, Mr. Wahl is also the co-founder and owner of Definitions, a successful fitness and lifestyle company with centres in St. John’s and Houston.

Though his primary objective has always been helping others achieve their wellness goals, the philosophy behind that pursuit is a long-term lifestyle approach to health. He’s applying that same thinking to his doctoral research on obesity risk factors in middle-aged men.

The demographic is one that Mr. Wahl feels is particularly threatened. That realization came to him first hand while working as an offshore health consultant with oil and gas workers.

“That workforce is significantly represented by men in that middle age range,” he said. “When you consider offshore oil and gas installations, factors such as the availability of high caloric foods, limited opportunity for physical activity, employees getting older and a rise in sedentary jobs may all predispose workers to becoming overweight or obese. Obesity, in turn, increases the risk of injury, slows recovery time from injury and increases the risk of metabolic illness.”

These patterns are mimicked in the general population. Societal changes in lifestyle patterns over time and the high prevalence of risk factors such as smoking, obesity, low physical activity levels and poor nutrition adversely affect health and reduce productivity. Middle-aged men as a sub-group of that population have not been a traditional focus of the fitness industry and are not as likely to seek help for weight-loss issues.

“Men struggle with losing weight and being active because most of the mainstream commercial nutrition plans out there are catered to women. But men need it just as much,” said Mr. Wahl. “In my research, I’m looking at the hormonal response associated with changing to a healthier lifestyle in a group of about 50 men between the ages of 35 and 55 who are relatively inactive and slightly overweight, but not yet considered clinically overweight or obese.”

Measuring a number of different hormones that help maintain a healthy body weight, Mr. Wahl is observing changes in his subjects over a period of three months. During that time he is pairing each participant with a trainer and exercise program, providing nutrition counselling and guidance and conducting a series of fitness tests.

“Typically when people visit a physician, they may be told to eat well and exercise,” he said. “To me, that’s the equivalent of going to a automotive shop and being told ‘Here’s all the tools, fix your own car.’ That’s exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do. By supporting the process with some basic, hands-on exercise and nutrition guidance we are hoping to reduce the common risk factors associated with metabolic disease and obesity in middle-aged men.”

A recent study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that 71 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be clinically overweight or obese by 2019. Mr. Wahl wants to help avoid a new normal.

“If trends continue, in 2019, the new normal will be that 71 per cent of people will be overweight. The goal of our research is to demonstrate that simple changes can lead to significant results; something which has not been the norm in traditional obesity research. By studying these positive outliers, the individuals who are seeing positive results from our lifestyle intervention, we can glean information to help others facing the same issues.”