Exercise and a balanced diet to fight obesity and its effects on economy and health

In the last decades, the relevance of obesity and overweight in developed economies is experiencing an upward trend: it’s about time to roll up our sleeves and tackle both its causes and effects

As the World Health Organization states, the global obesity rate tripled between 1975 and the last years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA), such rate reached 42.4% of the overall Northern American population in 2017-2018, which is to say that more than 4 Americans out of 10 suffer from obesity. The WHO noted that people with obesity were 39% of the global population in 2016.

Obesity implies that the person's body mass index – BMI, calculated dividing the body mass (weight) by the square of the person’s height – is greater or equal to 30. The advisable value should be between 18.51 and 25. Still according to the WHO, in the last 40 years the number of children & adolescents aged between 5 and 19 affected by overweight (25 ≤ BMI < 30) and obesity has risen from 4% up to 18%: despite being a non-communicable disease, the number of people affected by obesity continues to climb.

The toll obesity and overweight take on economies

The costs of obesity on the healthcare systems of countries have become renowned. As far as the US context in concerned, a recent paper by Dr. Nico Pronk – published on the May/June 2021 edition of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal – dwells on the economic implication of obesity; Pronk holds adjunct professor positions in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard University School of Public Health, and serves as chair for the Roundtable on Obesity Solution at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. In the publication it is stated that “obesity is a costly disease estimated in excess of $190 billion per year and with projections that by 2030, if obesity trends continue unchecked, obesity-related medical costs alone could rise from $48 to $66 billion a year in the United States”. In the US job market, the cost companies have to face in relation to full-time employees affected by obesity is estimated to be $73.1 billion.

Talking about the European scenario, in late 2019 the OECD revealed that “the analysis on the health, economic and social costs of overweight in 52 countries (including countries from the OECD area, European Union, UE28 and G20) points out that nations spend – on average – almost 1/10 (8.4%) of the whole health budget to treat diseases and conditions linked to overweight. On average, overweight alone is responsible of 71% of all diabetes-related costs, 23% of all cardiovascular-diseases-related costs and 9% of all tumour-related costs”. The global economic effect of obesity was estimated to be roughly €1.77 trillion (2.8% of global GDP). In developed economies, the effect of obesity alone on healthcare systems is between 2% and 7% of all healthcare spending.

In fact, the WHO underlines how obesity and overweight are major direct causes of a series of other serious medical conditions: cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart failures and stroke, which stand as the principal death cause of patients with obesity), diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis) and some types of cancers (endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon). People suffering from severe obesity – if not treated – rarely reach an old age. As highlighted in Dr. Pronk’s aforementioned paper, obesity is considered to be one of the “top three global social burdens generated by human beings” (together with 1. armed violence/war/terrorism and 2. smoking).

Obesity: a vicious circle

Obesity and overweight are essentially caused by a high calorie intake, which doesn’t meet an equally high calorie consumption. This trend has been enhanced by the widespread availability of low-cost, low-quality, high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt and energy-dense food, combined with an extremely sedentary lifestyle. Another important factor to take into account when talking about the causes of obesity is the psychological one: people suffering from overweight and obesity often reach such condition because they find a psychological comfort and solace in food and excessive eating, in response to traumas, anxiety, stress.

It’s also a fact that the fatter people get, the less they’re motivated to exercise or move, getting into a vicious circle. In addition to social and economic factors which foster inactivity (ex. urbanization and office jobs), the whole context of the Covid-19 pandemic obviously worsened the situation, forcing people to stay at home and really putting their will to stay active to the test.

In many developed countries (first and foremost among them, the US), balanced diets with a good nutrient quality imply a higher cost and more expensive ingredients than fast food and similar offers. This makes of obesity and overweight also a social problem, other than a health issue. In Dr. Pronk’s publication, the social implications of obesity are also highlighted (“men and women with college degrees had lower obesity prevalence compared with those with less education”), with a specific focus on weight bias and on the discrimination and stigma people affected by obesity face in everyday life and in the workplace.

Weight bias is defined as “negative attitudes, beliefs, judgments, stereotypes, and discriminatory acts aimed at individuals simply because of their weight” and, in its worst evolutions, it can be dehumanizing and deeply damaging. In his paper, Dr. Pronk thoroughly depicts how workers affected by obesity have to face a series of unfair treatments, mainly on the workplace: they are less likely to be hired (because of HR’s unconscious bias), they are less likely to be offered a job promotion, they are more likely to be offered lower wages and they are more likely to be fired with no proper reason. Weight bias and its effects on the worker with obesity were also found responsible of affecting their job-related attitudes, behaviours and outcomes.

How to fight overweight with a positive lifestyle

This said, obesity remains a preventable and curable disease: starting from choosing the proper diet and from finding the motivation to avoid unhealthy temptations, to practising regular physical activity (the WHO suggests at least 60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes spread through the week for adults).

The most advisable exercise sessions for people whose main issue is weight are cardio training sessions: they are the most effective ones to burn calories and lose weight, to help lungs become more efficient and to unburden the heart and the overall cardiovascular system. People affected by obesity and overweight often find it hard to go to the gym also because of the fear to be judged and laughed at: treadmills and indoor bikes – as well as cross trainers – are a perfect option to go for a cardio workout at home.

Technogym has been at the forefront in promoting a healthy lifestyle since its birth in the 80s: the vision on which Technogym relies as one of its foundations implies regular physical activity, a healthy diet and a positive mental approach. Human beings were born to move, but modern social and technological trends often pose a threat to it. With Let’s Move for a Better World, people are called to fight against physical inactivity by joining the biggest social campaign in the fitness industry. By taking part in it, you donate the physical activity performed in your facility to a social cause: through people’s participation, Technogym will be able to donate products and wellness solutions to institutions around the world.

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