Obesity Versus Inactivity Study a Battle of the Bulge

A recent study proposing a new battle of the bulge between obesity itself and inactivity has created headlines with dramatic implications. Many headlines are forming generalizing statements inferred by the study that simply adding 20 minutes of activity (even a light brisk walk counts) would significantly decrease a person’s risk for mortality versus decreasing the level of obesity, slightly inferring that obesity is not the main issue.

The study took place in Europe, spanning 12 years where 334,161 participants were measured for weight, height and asked to assess their own physical activity (using a standard given by the researchers). The study was attempting to focus on physical activity and premature death. The areas being looked at were Body Mass Index (BMI) (which if greater than 30 is considered obese), waist circumference and physical activity. Waist circumference is added into the equation because there are numerous studies that have shown that the levels of adipose tissue, more so than other factors, are a great indicator of a person’s risk for health issues (heart disease and other related diseases) that often can lead to premature death. By targeting the measurement of adipose tissue and changing physical inactivity, this study attempted to show that the variable inactivity was the protagonist in this showdown and not obesity.

By the 12th year follow-up, 21, 438 participants had died. Researchers were not clear on how they measured possible changes in their measurements throughout the 12 years or how exactly these participants died. It also used a very subjective manner for measuring physical activity by allowing the participants themselves to grade their activity levels. Both of these should be considered when taking in the generalized results claimed by the research.
It is true and a well-known fact that even thinner people have health issues. These may be related to physical activity or unhealthy behaviors and lifestyles. To say that all thin people’s health issues relate to inactivity, especially when rating activity with only a 20 minute brisk walk, begs for more detail to support that claim.

Because people exist in a society very focused on aesthetics, thin people are generally not targeted as the lazy or unhealthy ones because to the naked eye they look fine. A study taking a simple look into many of those who are thin and their lifestyle might provide a revealing comparison. Many thin people, active or not, actually smoke, drink and eat very unhealthy foods versus those who are thin and workout, who then also do not smoke or eat unhealthy foods. It might have been better to identify and quantify these factors before accepting the previous blanket claim that most thin people are unhealthy.

The study reported that 92 million people (men and women in Europe) died in the year 2008. From their estimates, they stated that 667, 000 died due to physical inactivity while the remaining 337,000 deaths were due to obesity. Again, however, there is no detailed description about how this conclusion was made or how the distinction was made. All in all, the study claims that avoiding all inactivity, and reducing waist circumference, could yield a drop of 7.35 percent in risk for early death or mortality. Only avoiding obesity would decrease risk by 3.66 percent.

The data has begged the question of whether obesity would inherently drop when a person dropped their waist circumference and increased their activity. The researchers addressed this by again inferring that being thin alone was not the solution they were trying to link to risk of mortality. It is therefore, though flawed or at least with noted weaknesses, that this study inadvertently proved what many health providers have been saying for years. They succeeded in proving that a BMI measurement alone is not enough to draw conclusions about anyone’s health. It has never taken into account a person’s physical activity and therefore people such as athletes have always tested as obese because the only two measurements it relies on are height and weight.

Encouraging people to just focus on a little more activity instead of the heavy emphasis of losing weight might make a difference and be the key to unleashing real change in this epidemic we are now facing. The fact is, the study did make a valid point that regardless of your weight, being thin alone should not be the only goal, and activity should not be overlooked as a necessity. In a world where if you look fine then you don’t need to be active or exercise, that may be a strong enough message in itself. As far as this battle of the bulge the implied conclusions versus the facts displayed in the study do not show activity alone knocked out obesity in its fight against mortality. They both throw some powerful punches and are worth fighting in earnest, no matter your dress or pant size.

By Clea Tucker

BBC News
University Of Cambridge
American Journal of Clinical Exercise

Image courtesy of potamos.photography – Flickr License

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