Pulling together to fight obesity

A meeting of prominent medical figures is taking place this week in a bid to tackle the growing problem of obesity

A meeting of prominent medical figures is taking place this week in a bid to tackle the growing problem of obesity

‘BOOTCAMP” REALITY shows on television are misleading people about the level of hardship involved in losing weight, according to a leading physiotherapist.

Exercise doesn’t have to involve large amounts of pain and hardship as the shows claim, says Dr Colin Dunlevy, who works with the obesity service at St Colmcille’s hospital in Loughlinstown, Dublin.

Many adults take their ideas of what is required to lose weight from the dramas unfolding in popular TV weight-loss programmes, he points out. “This invariably involves pain and hardship and being dragged over endless hours on the ‘dreadmill’, or being ‘bootcamped’ through fields and hedgerows.”

Dr Dunlevy says this notion of exercise often leads to early failure or complete avoidance by the novice.

“The tragedy of this prevailing notion of exercise is that it is completely unnecessary. There is good evidence that people who are trying to improve their weight profile and sedentary behaviour benefit from much easier types of exercise.”

When researchers looked at the health benefits enjoyed by people who are getting the recommended minimum of 2.5 hours of exercise a week, they found that it made no difference whether they got their workout in short spurts or over longer sessions. “Little and often” are the key rules for exercising to lose weight, he says.

Dr Dunlevy is one of a number of prominent medical figures who will address the inaugural meeting of the Association for the Study of Obesity on the Island of Ireland to be held in Dublin this week.

The association was set up only this year with the aim of promoting awareness of obesity and providing a forum for Irish researchers to share their work and develop new strategies. The background is one of soaring levels of obesity and a patchy implementation of measures to tackle the problem, for instance as recommended in the 2005 taskforce on obesity.

In his paper, Prof Richard Layte of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) sets out the shocking figures surrounding obesity in children. In 2009, 26 per cent of nine year olds were overweight or obese. Obesity is inversely related to social class, with working class girls almost 40 per cent more likely to be overweight than their peers in professional households.

Even at the age of three, 25 per cent of children are obese or overweight, he points out.

However, parents can be the agents of change in tackling their children’s weight issues, according to Belgian research to be presented at the seminar.

A number of contributors to the meeting, which looks at obesity through the lifecycle, examined the challenges facing pregnant women. Dr Dianne Liddle, a lecturer in health at the University of Ulster, says moderate physical activity is safe for both mother and baby, with the benefits outweighing any risks, which are easily avoided.

Women who maintain a healthy weight before, during and after pregnancy have better protection against heart disease, colon cancer and other common diseases, she points out.

“The aim should be to maintain a good fitness level throughout pregnancy, reducing the decline in physical activity that typically occurs during pregnancy. However, pregnant women should not be training for peak fitness or competitions.”

Obstetrician Prof Michael Turner describes the issue of obesity among mothers as “common, complicated and costly”.

As one in six mothers-to-be is obese and 2 per cent are morbidly obese, this has “serious implications” for obstetric care.

Obese women are more likely to develop diabetes, blood pressure disorders and to suffer foetal complications. However, Prof Turner says pregnancy is an ideal opportunity for women to try to prevent the complications of obesity in later life.

Finding a solution to the obesity crisis is proving as difficult as might be expected where the causes are complex and disputed. The debate over who is to blame continues to rage between those who highlight individual responsibility and that of families in the case of children, and those who take a broader view and are critical of the food industry and Government policy.

In his paper, Prof Martin Caraher, professor of food and food policy at City University London, argues that the solutions to obesity are not to be found in health policy and actions alone. In Ireland, a joined-up policy linking health, finance, agriculture and planning is needed to tackle the problem.

Inequality is the prime driver of obesity and other food-related chronic diseases, he says, referring to the “new malnutrition” where the poor are both overfed, leading to obesity, and hungry.

Prof Caraher also plans to address what he describes as “tension” between the 2020 Food Harvest report and obesity strategies, as well as the role of the food industry in “editing” the choices available to consumers.

Overall, the meeting promises to provide food for thought – doubtless only in moderation, though – about one of the main challenges facing Irish society today.

* Even at the age of 3, 25% of children are obese or overweight

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times