As the media’s spotlight falls on junk food marketing, sugar and childhood obesity, Johanna Ralston – CEO of the World Obesity Federation – urges decision-makers to act now
In the late 1940s, Professor Jerry Morris set out on a study comparing the health of London’s bus drivers with its conductors. The results were startling. Conductors, who climbed stairs and walked an average of 10,000 steps every day, were at lower risk for cardiovascular ‘events’ than their sedentary counterparts behind the wheel of the bus. For the first time an explicit link had been made between people who worked in less physically active jobs and chronic heart disease. In an era where access to a gym was rare and advertisements might herald cigarette smoke as being ‘better for your health’, the connection between exercise and health was anything but obvious.
Seventy years on from this study the world is still trying to work out how to act on its discoveries. In what environment would people take positive steps about what they eat and how they exercise? Three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, and sedentary living conditions are on the rise in London and across the whole world: people are consuming more calories without any additional exercise.
The global will to act is greater than it has ever been
It isn’t only physical activity and heart disease that need to be addressed. Obesity acts as a gateway to a number of chronic diseases, now known as non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The global will to act is greater than it has ever been but existing commitments to tackle obesity need to be put into place to counter the pandemic of obesity.
These diseases are among the top causes of death in virtually every country in the world. A staggering 80 per cent of the cases of diabetes in the world now occur in low and middle-income countries where malnutrition, which encompasses both over and under-nutrition, is particularly high. This is a global problem that requires a global response.
The vast majority of deaths due to obesity and NCDs are preventable. A range of policies could help, from restrictions around the marketing of unhealthy food to requiring clear nutritional guidance and the promotion of walking and cycling. But unless global leaders take political action, which focuses on the prevention, management and treatment of obesity, children and adults alike will continue on the path of less exercise, more nutrient-poor food and continued weight gain with its attendant impact on health.
So what’s needed to bend the curve on obesity? To make real change, advocates must call on governments to strengthen taxes on sugar, unhealthy food and alcohol, ban the advertising of unhealthy food to children, provide health services that are equipped to treat and manage obesity and NCDs, and provide safe places where people can move and play. In short, we need concerted political action to tackle the social and commercial determinants of physical inactivity and obesity. We also need a shift in society’s perception of obesity where, all too often, individuals are blamed without any understanding of the complex factors that contribute to the issue.
As advocates for change, it’s critical that our “ask” – the statement that inspires action – is succinct and honed when we approach politicians and decisions makers. Our ‘elevator pitch’ needs to be strong enough to grab attention in the time it takes to go from the lobby to the third floor of a hotel or office block.
Citizens can do much too, in our own cities and towns across the globe
If the ask is simple, it’s also urgent. NCDs are not getting the attention they need from governments, donors, or even private investors. In September, the UN general assembly will include a session on NCDs. This is the moment for world leaders to seize an opportunity: to unite and commit to bold action to tackle the epidemic, which threatens to collapse already overburdened and fragile health systems.
Citizens can do much too, in our own cities and towns across the globe. The world learned a vital lesson from the study of conductors and bus drivers in London. We learned the powerful impact an act as simple as climbing stairs every day could have on long-term health. So, the next time we see a decision-maker heading for the elevator? Let’s challenge them to join us in using the stairs instead. Let’s walk the talk, ditch the elevator pitch, and start practicing our stairwell speeches instead.
Johanna Ralston is CEO of the World Obesity Federation and a fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. She was previously CEO of the World Heart Federation and vice chair of the NCD Alliance