Post No.: 0278
Invest in health and health will come. (This is apparently statistically true in economics.) No matter if we’re personally financially rich or poor or anything else in life – if one vital thing isn’t right with our health then it’ll bring us down. Our own health is therefore priceless to us. Health is essentially about the quality and quantity of life itself.
But obesity rates have been rising over the past several decades. Obesity-related problems add huge costs to the national healthcare system and contribute to lost productivity in the wider economy. Hospital admissions due to obesity-related causes include treatments for organ failure, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, as well as surgical procedures such as the various forms of bariatric surgery. The trend over the last several decades in countries like the UK and USA has been a general rise in obesity rates – in 2014, more than 65% of men and nearly 60% of women in the UK were clinically classed as overweight or obese.
This rising trend hasn’t escaped children either, which is more worrying since early habits can ingrain and become hard to shift later in life. The obesity rate of children has tripled in 20 years. In 2014, 17% of children were classed as obese and an additional 14% of children were classed as overweight in the UK, which has led to a rising number of cases of type 2 diabetes (which used to be called adult-onset diabetes!), high blood pressure and heart or coronary artery disease. Obese children are also up to 20% more likely to develop cancer later in life.
Of course it’s not just a UK or US problem. According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, over 1.9 billion adults were classed as overweight, of which 650 million were obese. Obesity is fast becoming, or has become, as big a global problem as malnutrition. (This, over-simplistically at least, seems to suggest that we can potentially solve two global problems at once here – first the overweight should eat less so that the starving can eat more!)
It must be noted that a conservative estimate of 1.6 million people in the UK conversely suffer from under-eating disorders, and this problem has been growing and must not be neglected too. However, most of the world’s population live in countries where being overweight or obese kills more people than being underweight.
The sporting successes of our national representatives (or ‘representatives’, for they typically hardly represent what most people in their countries are like when to comes to athleticism!) or the teams we support can temporarily distract us from the truth that even many sports fans aren’t themselves very fit, as discussed in Post No.: 0255.
Only around about half of 6-17 year-olds play sports regularly. Some US research suggests that, before the end of High school – 70% of children drop out of sports, of which 15% leave because they feel they’re not good enough, 70% leave because they’re not having fun or they had problems with the coach or coaching environment and 30% leave because of injuries (those surveyed could state multiple reasons hence the total adds up to over 100%). A lot of girls and boys do not do the recommended minimum of one hour per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, due to an increasingly sedentary culture, which has been facilitated, in part, by the draw of other, less physically active, activities such as social media.
A study of 10 year-olds from a county in the UK between 1998 and 2014 found that children have been getting heavier and taller but despite this they have been getting markedly weaker and less fit in tests of sit-ups, standing long jumps, bent-arm hanging, and hand-grip strength (a 20% decrease in muscle strength and a 30% decrease in muscle endurance on average), and this trend has been accelerating too.
The obese are likely to die up to 10 years earlier than those within a healthy weight range. There had been a hypothesised ‘obesity paradox’, where the data seemed to suggest that obesity (as determined via BMI, or body mass index) is correlated with lower mortality – but this was heavily criticised from many different angles, including strong confounding by smokers, who tend to be leaner but have a high mortality rate, and that lots of people lose weight as a consequence of some other life-threatening illness, and these people have a high mortality from these illnesses rather than have a high mortality because of their lower weight. This means that obesity is not a protective factor in most cases, and all else being equal, shortens rather than prolongs lives. Only using BMI as the measure of obesity (a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of her/his height in metres), instead of supplementing it with other measures such as waist-to-hip ratio and waist circumference measurements, is unreliable too since many muscular and athletic people will be classified as ‘obese’ too.
The consequences of low self-image, low body confidence and mental health problems as a result of obesity also add other direct or indirect costs to generally poor diets and poor lifestyle choices. The ‘body positivity’ movement aims to combat this, yet we must not in the process ignore the physical health risks that obesity still brings. We cannot just mentally believe that cancer, diabetes, hypertension, etc. are not real problems so that they’ll no longer be real problems. At the end of the day, obesity is not about how people look, whether we think obese people look beautiful or not – it’s about the state of one’s internal organs and functions. It’s about the inside. Hence indeed, being overweight doesn’t guarantee health problems and vice-versa. But from a statistical and overall population point of view, there’s a strong link, and governmental policies should rationally take the statistical and overall population point of view.
So obesity has been on the increase in countries like the UK, and is an ever growing global concern overall. The direct costs include treating obesity, treating the consequences of obesity and treating serious related chronic diseases, and the indirect costs include the costs of premature death, sickness absence and more. There is more importantly a rising childhood obesity epidemic and we must look after the children for they are the future! Meow.
But the great news is that this is virtually all preventable! Individually, people can limit their calorific intake, increase their physical activity levels and generally care about their own, and own family’s, health. Collectively, environments and communities that shape and support healthier lifestyle choices play a key role too (e.g. nudging to make the healthiest choices the most available, accessible and affordable, encouraging the use of walking and cycling over driving via infrastructure design, governmental policies such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages) – individual responsibility can only be fully expressed when everybody has access to a healthy lifestyle, which particularly concerns the poorest in society. Corporations must play their part too (e.g. limiting the marketing of unhealthy choices to children, reformulating recipes to reduce the level of fat, sugar and salt in processed foods, ensuring the availability of healthful food options, supporting regular physical activity practice in the workplace).
It’s therefore all in our hands, feet, paws, tails and any other body parts that move! Thus now that I’m finally done with this important post, I’m off to the park to stalk some unsuspecting furry and feathery creatures before the sun rises because that’s what cats like me like to do. I hope you eat healthily and get active most days too…