Just How Fat Are We?

In the race to create the most addictive app (or maybe it’s a next-generation Angry Birds game) the BBC has launched an online Biomass Meter that tells you where the percentile where you fall in terms of corpulence worldwide and, most compellingly, lets you see where in the world you’d fit in given your waistline (I’d be at home Brazil, Iran or South Africa). This calculator is based on research data pulled together by a team of researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, using UN data on population size in 177 countries, together with estimates of global weight from the WHO and mean height from national health examination surveys.

Interesting timing given that (according the New York Times) last month, researchers affiliated with the World Health Organization and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reported that, worldwide, people’s waistlines are expanding, with the total combined weight of human beings on Earth now exceeding 287 million tons. About 3.5 million tons of that global human biomass is due to obesity, a third of which exists in North America, although we account for only 6 percent of the world’s population.

The biggest culprit ? Voluntary inactivity, according to a study in the Lancet. Led by Pedro C. Hallal, a professor at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, the study finds that 31.1 percent of the world’s adults, or about 1.5 billion people, are almost completely sedentary, meaning that they do not meet the minimum recommendation of 150 minutes of walking or other moderate activity per week, or about 20 minutes a day.

But surely we can look to our teenagers as models of physical vitality, correct? Not quite. Teenagers do worse. More than 80 percent of young people ages 13 to 15 worldwide are not getting the hour a day of vigorous exercise recommended for their age group. North America leads (or wheezingly lags) the world in not exercising, with 43.3 percent of Americans not doing the bare minimum. But, it’s spreading: more than 30 percent of Russians and 27 percent of Africans are sedentary. And what’s the most sedentary nation on Earth? Malta, population 419,000, 72 percent of whom won’t be appearing on The Biggest Loser.

According to the Lancet study, the effect of being a couch potato is comparable to smoking. “Smoking and physical inactivity are the two major risk factors for non-communicable diseases around the globe. Of the 36 million deaths each year from non- communicable diseases, physical inactivity and smoking each contribute about 5 million deaths each.”

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