Lifestyle diseases are spreading throughout the world, now affecting nearly every society. Most of us know people living with heart disease, obesity, or diabetes, whether in our family, our social network, or even ourselves. These and a range of other serious conditions are caused in large part by lifestyle choices, especially poor diet and insufficient exercise.
We need to understand why people make poor lifestyle decisions, what they can do to change, and how all of us – including employers – can help. Managing this crisis will determine the future of healthcare systems and the affordability of health insurance. So…let’s talk about it.
Diet and physical activity are the keys to good health
Firstly, “lifestyle” should not solely be viewed for the typical or cultural aspects of daily life – where we shop, eat, what we watch, discuss or hold dear. Rather, a fundamental lifestyle element and enabler is our health-related behaviors, such as diet and physical activity. These two forces are closely interwoven: harnessing them both can help us effectively address and even prevent lifestyle diseases.
Many of us know that maintaining a healthy weight is critical to good health at all stages of life, and that being overweight or underweight increases your risk for a whole host of different health conditions and diseases. Nevertheless, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and in most countries, being overweight or obese contributes to more deaths than being underweight.
As such, body weight is great example for illustrating the role of diet and physical activity.
We have all heard the phrase: “You can’t outrun a bad diet.” But how can this be the case? The simple fact is that to lose 1kg of body fat, you need to burn 7,000 kilocalories. Walking at about 4km/h, you will only burn 180 kilocalories per hour. Thus, you would have to walk for 66 hours to lose 1kg of body fat.
With this in mind, it’s little surprise that a healthy diet is the most effective way to lose weight. But without exercising, you will also lose muscle, leaving you feeling fatigued more quickly and risk becoming even more inactive. This leads to a vicious cycle, commonly known as the “yo-yo effect”, as there is a limit to how much body weight you can lose based on diet alone. Once you’ve reached the limit, it is likely that when you start eating unhealthily again, your weight will increase dramatically.
Hence the need for exercise. Physical activity, no matter the intensity, has therapeutic value, helping you rebuild the muscle density you lose through dieting, reducing your risk of the yo-yo effect significantly, and allowing you to achieve sustainable results.
Indeed, the point of physical activity is not to lose weight. It is rather about changing your lifestyle and your energy pattern. Exercise affects what you eat and the way you sleep, and is critical to your sustainable weight management and overall well-being. Fortunately, exercise can be any physical activity – it does not need to involve Olympic-level athleticism or even competitive sport. All we need is to develop a routine of physical activity that we are comfortable with.
Poor diet and lack of exercise are a global health crisis
Unfortunately, while good diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyles have been promoted for decades, the WHO still reports that one in three people do not do enough physical activity to stay healthy. This lack of activity contributes to an estimated 3.2 million deaths and 32.1 million disability-adjusted life years (loss of the equivalent of one year of full health) every year. Almost 500 million people will develop noncommunicable diseases due to physical inactivity, with the associated economic cost expected to reach US$27 billion annually between 2020 and 2030.
A recent study of children and adolescents shows an exact correlation between hours spent in front of screens and body-mass index (BMI). It has been proven that early obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease threefold and impacts our capacity to live normally, increasing disabilities, affecting sleep quality and mental health. The World Obesity Federation also projects that the economic impact of overweight and obesity will reach US$4.32 trillion, or close to 3% of global GDP by 2035.
Convenience and cost are our biggest hurdle
With rapid advances in technology, we are increasingly prioritizing convenience over our health, and this has transformed our lifestyles and health. Look at the seismic shift in flexible work since the pandemic, which, for millions globally, has removed the work commute and a daily dose of walking or physical activity. Meanwhile, digital apps such as food delivery services have further limited our scope for daily activity.
As our patterns of work and life change, so too should the way we incorporate physical activity into our daily lives.
Cost is another barrier. Many of us are turning to gym memberships, organic food, or other expensive solutions to stay healthy. But rising costs of living are making good nutrition and good health unaffordable for many. The increasing cost of health and well-being was recently reflected in a Cigna study, in which 65% of global respondents say they are struggling to afford to stay healthy.
It is important for employers to understand the lifestyle situation in light of today’s work patterns, as employees now spend more time than ever sitting in front of screens, particularly among the remote or hybrid workforce. This sedentary lifestyle is a significant cause of ill-health, chronic disease, and mortality and has obvious impacts on productivity.
How can we promote healthier lifestyles
As mentioned, diet and exercise are building blocks to a healthy life and help prevent a number of chronic and lifestyle diseases. A good diet helps protect our health and immune system, and ultimately allows us to live longer. Similarly, exercise is an effective lifestyle disease preventer. For example, physical activity can reduce the excess risk of work disabilityby 20% among overweight individuals.
While governments, health agencies, and healthcare providers are working to treat as many patients as possible, they will not be able to cope with the exponential growth of demand. Today, employee well-being has become a fundamental metric of social well-being, and employers have an opportunity and responsibility to make a significant impact. In addition to driving awareness, employers need to have honest conversations with their employees about how they can build a healthier workforce and contribute to a healthier society.
There are multiple ways employers can make an impact. This includes awareness-building and actively encouraging healthy lifestyles by providing ergonomic workstations (e.g., standing desks or meetings) or organizing physical team activities. In reality, the costs of approaching lifestyle diseases head-on can be minimal; rather, the challenge is creativity and innovation.
Why are lifestyle diseases a priority?
Now that the long-running research into cancer is starting to yield results, it may be that lifestyle diseases will eventually replace cancer as our biggest health threat. Cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and type 2 diabetes are likely to become the world’s top killers. Unfortunately, healthcare systems have no silver bullet to address them, as only lifestyle changes can reverse their spread and effectively reduce their impact.
It is therefore vital that governments, employers, and communities tackle poor diet and inactivity as a matter of urgency. Of course, we can manage our weight and diet as individuals up to a point, but in reality, most of us need support from our surrounding social group. Now is the time for all of us to talk openly about eating better and moving more.