Today, on World Physical Activity Day, the World Obesity Federation (World Obesity) has released its first position statement on the role of physical activity and exercise on obesity.
In the statement, World Obesity champions the importance of physical activity for overall health and wellbeing, and advocates for the development of policies to increase physical activity levels.
Obesity is a chronic relapsing disease, defined by The World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health’, and has a wide range of drivers including genetics, biology and environmental factors. Yet, too often obesity is misunderstood and characterised as a lifestyle condition that can be solved if people ‘eat less and move more’, a message which undermines the complexity of the disease and overstates the impact of exercise.
The body uses energy in three main ways: during rest (basal metabolic rate), to break down food, and to perform physical activity. Although we have little control over our basal metabolic rate, it consumes most of our energy and accounts for 60% - 80% of total energy expenditure, while both body movement and body size determine the energy expenditure induced by physical activity. Physical activity should therefore not be seen as the silver bullet that ‘cures’ obesity, but rather should be pursued because it helps to improve overall health and can help maintain a healthy body weight. Treating obesity is not just about losing weight.
Physical activity refers to all movement and includes popular activities such as walking, cycling, play, sports and dance. To address physical inactivity levels the WHO published guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour (2020), which provides global recommendations on the amount of physical activity required for different age and population groups. Most age groups are advised to do at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week to help maintain healthy body weight.
Yet, statistics from the WHO show that, globally, 1 in 4 adults (aged 18-64 years) do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity and current (pre COVID-19) global estimates show that 81% of adolescents do not do enough. Lockdowns around the world and movement restrictions in place to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have further limited the opportunities for people to be physically active due to the closure of schools, fitness studios and leisure centres, and the introduction of homeschooling and ‘work from home’ policies. All of this jeopardises the risk of seeing levels of physical activity decline even further.
Why should people participate in physical activity?
Failing to engage in the recommended amounts of physical activity increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by 20–30%, and shortens lifespan by three-five years. In contrast, regular physical activity leads to a reduction in blood pressure and a decrease in the risk of developing hypertension, type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart attacks. Research also shows that regular physical activity can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Mental health can also be improved due to the release of feel-good hormones (endorphins). While the impact of physical activity on weight loss is minimal, exercise incontestably confers significant mental and physical health benefits, and can contribute to weight maintenance, depending on the levels and type of activity an individual engages in.
While the pandemic has undoubtedly had an adverse impact on physical activity levels it also presents an opportunity for the global community to make a change and prioritise health and wellbeing. In order to encourage an increase in global physical activity levels, policies need to be developed that enable everyone to engage in regular exercise, including through professional, school, home and community settings. Cross-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration will be required for a range of initiatives including, building walking and cycling infrastructure, increasing and improving access to public spaces, and promoting active transport. It is also essential that children are provided with education that enables them to develop physically active lives, to help prevent them developing overweight or obesity and to reduce their risk of developing other non-communicable diseases.