Research provides hope for simple treatment of obesity

Following just a few simple rules regarding moderate exercise, healthy eating and lifestyle can ensure weight control and lower the risk of disease, say the world’s leading researchers on obesity.

“There’s been a hysteria in place over the last many years,” said Dr Steven Blair, who presented a key speech on the state of the art in exercise to an international science conference on obesity in Canada.

“We have a public health problem of overweight and obesity, but it’s been blown out of proportion,” said Blair. “We focus on obesity and not on other health habits and other risk factors.”

Scientists concur that there’s a crisis in soaring rates of obesity and related diseases, like diabetes, in most developed countries. Current treatments, especially for extreme obesity, are few, have limited success and, in the case of surgery, can be radical and invasive.

But there was also good news for the majority of people at the annual conference of Naaso, The Obesity Society, held in this western Canadian city.

As long as people don’t smoke, eat healthy foods and get enough exercise, excess weight may not be as much of a health risk as is commonly thought.

New research in sleep, nutrition, stress, social and consumer factors in obesity and the chemical triggers of weight gain could soon lead to better prevention and treatment.

Findings by scientists at the US Centres for Disease Control show that being merely “overweight” does not, by itself, increase the risk of disease and death.
While obesity remains a major cause of early death, fewer people die because of excess fat than previous research indicated.

Meanwhile, scientists now believe that a healthy amount of exercise is attainable for most people.

Despite the enormous range of exercise programmes and gear for sale in developed countries, keeping fit simply requires a daily total of 30 minutes of brisk walking, just five days a week, said Blair.

Blair, whose Texas-based Cooper Institute studies and designs physical activity programmes around the world and trains fitness instructors for the US military, cited dramatic effects from a simple walk routine.

Walking “cuts the risk of dying in half over next eight to ten years,” he said.

“It cuts the risk of diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and colon cancer ... sometimes in half.”

“It cuts your risk of becoming depressed, and if you are depressed, it helps ameliorate the symptoms,” said Blair.

“If you exercise, you call into action nearly every body system including your heart and lungs, and molecules and hormones dash madly around the body.”

“A whole cascade of many body functions are affected by exercise,” even if the 30-minute daily walks are divided into three 10-minute or two 15-minute walks.

For the 25% of Americans who get no exercise at all and who may be discouraged by complex fitness programmes, the fact that almost all benefits of exercise are attained in the walk program may be encouraging.

Blair noted that the health benefits do increase during more intense or prolonged exercise, but that the extra benefit from more exercise is relatively small.

Meanwhile, for people who are extremely obese and for whom walking is not possible, treatment options are few but improving.

There are only two effective drugs for obesity currently on the market, said psychologist Thomas Wadden, president of The Obesity Society. “But we will have a lot of new medications in the next ten to 20 years.”

And as research shows bariatric surgery, sometimes known as “gut stapling”, increases life expectancy, the procedure has rapidly increased. Wadden said about 125 000 such surgeries are now performed each year in the US, up from less than 75 000 in 2002. - AFP

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