Are we breeding a culture of obesity?

November 26, 2000

Flopping on the couch with the remote in hand or remaining glued to the computer screen for hours on end are helping to create a society of obesity in Canada, a series of articles and commentaries featured in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal indicate.

In their analysis of body mass index (BMI) data compiled in 3 national databases, Mark Tremblay and Douglas Willms found that the number of obese children in Canada has more than doubled since 1981. In 1981, 15% of children were overweight, while 5% were obese. In 1996, 28.8% of boys and 23.6% of girls were overweight, while 13.5% of boys and 11.8% of girls were obese.

In a related commentary, Ross Anderson discusses causes, including the sacrifice of physician-education programs due to budgetary restraint.

The poor dietary habits learned in childhood come home to roost later in life. Peter Katzmarzyk and colleagues report that about $2.1-billion, or 2.5% of Canada's direct health care costs, were attributable to physical inactivity in 1999. To put this in context, the authors point out that cigarette smoking accounted for 3.8% of total health care costs in 1992.

The calculation is based on a summary of relative-risk estimates for coronary artery disease, stroke, colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes mellitus and osteoporosis. The authors suggest that reducing the prevalence of inactivity by just 10% could reduce health care costs by $150 million a year.

In a related editorial, Robert Kaman suggests that while telling people about the economic savings for the health care system is not likely to motivate individual change, that is no reason to give up. "Even if we can't precisely quantify the economic gains of increasing physical activity, we should continue to provide the best rationale and incentives to encourage participation in the best fitness programs we can," writes Kaman.
Secular trends in the body mass index of Canadian children*
-- M.S. Tremblay, J.D. Willms*

The economic burden of physical inactivity in Canada**
-- P.T. Katzmarzyk, N. Gledhill, R.J. Shephard

The spread of the childhood obesity epidemic
-- R.E. Andersen

Will increasing fiscal resources promote physical fitness?
-- R.L. Kaman

Direct Contacts:
Dr. Mark Tremblay, Faculty of Kinesiology, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton; tel 506-453-5064 email:
Dr. Peter Katzmarzyk, School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University, North York, Ont.; 416-736-2100 x30308. Email:
Dr. Ross Andersen, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore; 410-550-3540. Email:
Dr. Robert Kaman, Director of Health Promotion, University of Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth, TX; tel 817-735-2029 email:

* Supported by the Canadian Population Health Initiative of the Canadian Institute for Health Information
** Supported in part by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and Health Canada

Canadian Medical Association Journal

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