Global obesity has now reached “pandemic” status according to the latest report from medical journal The Lancet. Alarming global statistics make beating obesity one of the major priorities to global health. This is most prevalent in developed countries, as set out by the OECD. Their most recent obesity updated revealed that over 20 per cent of adults is obese in developed countries. Meanwhile, nearly one in six children is overweight or obese. Rates are highest in the United States and Mexico, while there have been alarming increases in Canada and France.
Alarmingly, the OECD projects further increases in obesity rates in developed countries (below).
Factors influencing rising obesity
Unhealthy eating is once again highlighted as the key reason for high global obesity rates. There is a renewed focus on foods with high levels of fat and sugar. The impact of unhealthy eating on obesity has been demonstrated, and is a key target for policy makers. However, less emphasis has been placed on worrying statistics concerning average levels of physical activity. The World Obesity Federation most recently published heat map of countries with insufficiently active populations is a cause for concern (see below).
Source: World Obesity Federation
The data correlates with obesity rates in the OECD countries, where over 30 per cent of adults in the USA, Canada and the UK are deemed ‘insufficiently active’, defined as doing less than 150 minutes moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. This suggests reinforces the fact that obesity is caused by a combination of diet and a lack of exercise.
According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) a decrease in exercise has more of an effect than an increase in calorie consumption. Data from the USA shows that average daily calorie intake has not changed significantly since the 1980s. This means that a lack of exercise is an increasingly important factor in rising obesity.
Methods for beating obesity
Campaigns aimed at beating obesity have praised international efforts to improve healthy eating. Better food labelling, closer regulation of school meals and a recent surge in taxes on high sugar drinks are attracting media attention.
However, according to the WHO emphasis also needs to be placed on how increased exercise can have positive health impacts.
In addition, the IFIC found that there was a proven link between reduced waist size and those who exercised over 100 minutes per week.
Fitting in time to exercise
Often cited as a reason for falling rates of physical activity is a lack of time to fit exercise into busy schedules. Among the most hit are those who travel for business. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review showed that global obesity rates are higher among those who travel regularly for work. It therefore comes as no surprise that this segment also reported lower rates of physical activity.
Times away from home are usually periods of high indulgence and low activity, creating an ‘exercise deficit’ to overcome when back home. Yet finding time to engage in 150 minutes for exercise weekly is not easy for those with busy work or family schedules. For this reason, there is a growing trend in shorter periods of higher physical activity, to hit the WHO-prescribed goal of 75 minutes vigorous activity per week. High Intensity Interval Training is one such example of this, used by those whose travel or work schedule leave them lacking in time.
Exercising when away from home
Recent developments have been removing barriers to exercising when away from home. There are a multitude of travel workouts available online with even gyms installed in airports for frequent flyers. Apps like TrainAway help travelers find gyms in any city in the world, and then gain entry using just an app, in the same style as Airbnb or Uber.
This is linked to the OECD’s recognition of new technologies being tools for public health promotion. However, currently they lean towards dietary improvements in a way that risks ignoring the importance of exercise to beating obesity. What recent data shows is that dual emphasis on both healthy eating and consistent exercise should be maintained to tackle the burgeoning epidemic.