It’s Simple, but it’s Not

The road to living a long and healthy life is simple, but it’s not. There are numerous studies like Vasanti S. Malik’s, published in Nature Reviews Endocrinology in 2013, that identify several factors contributing to obesity such as, income level, education, and geography. It is a complex issue often reduced to ridiculous sound bites in the media.

Media outlets like Fox News take a neoliberal stance that coincides with the food industry’s agenda to blame the individual for gluttony, while deliberately misleading consumers about sugar content – metaphor intended. Furthermore, and no surprise to most of you reading this, the food industry targets their sugar filled products to children, women, minorities, and low-income populations. The Center for Science and Democracy outlines the food industry’s disturbing agenda in their May 2014 publication Sugar-coating Science. This pushback against Big Food is building and beginning to gain traction in the media and in international and government organizations: for example, the documentary Fed Up and recent reports by the BBC and WHO. This is going to be a long and drawn out battle with obesity and related diseases at the centre. Obesity is complex.

Weight loss is complex. No revelation there. For example, recent research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity identified the top five barriers to weight loss and physical activity adherence:

Weight Loss Barriers

  1. Self-monitoring
  2. Social cues
  3. Holidays
  4. Low activity
  5. Internal cues (thought/mood)

Activity Barriers

  1. Holidays
  2. Time management
  3. Internal cues
  4. Illness
  5. Motivation

Some very interesting results from this study are the associations between participant demographics and the barriers. Elizabeth M Venditti and her team found that weight loss barriers were significantly associated with participants who were 25 to 43 years of age, female, obese, non-Caucasian, and single. Of the physical activity barriers reported by participants, internal cues had the most statistically significant demographic differences for female and obese participants. Who were the targets of the food industry’s sugar filled products?

Adding to the complexity of weight loss are the endless fads of the fitness industry that it cycles through at an attention deficit disorder pace. Furthermore, the fitness industry is populated with uninformed advice and trends that are neither beneficial nor safe. A simple search of YouTube will provide you with hours of unqualified advice. So, what the hell does a person do when there is a food industry spending billions on infusing you with sugar and a fitness industry where anyone who has lost weight is an expert? Follow the research.

If you want to live a long and healthy life, follow the documented examples like Blue Zones. According to researcher Michel Poulain, “A Blue Zone is a limited and homogenous geographical area where the population shares the same lifestyle and environment and its longevity has been proved to be exceptionally high.” A lot has been written on Blue Zones, as a Google search will reveal, so I will give a brief overview.

Blue Zones is a National Geographic initiative that has identified five locations around the world as having a high prevalence of octogenarians: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. Research into Blue Zones has identified common lifestyle habits among the different groups such as a vegetable-based diet with a low intake of meat, a positive attitude with a sense of purpose, and a high level of non-exercise physical activity (e.g., walking, home repair, and gardening).

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that non-exercise physical activity is one of the more important lifestyle choices to adopt. A 2011 article published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, found that longevity favoured Sardinian males whom were shepherds living in mountainous regions and who walked a longer daily distance to work than other Sardinians. Giovanni Pes and his team postulate that the average energy expenditure of these males contributed to their longevity. Similar findings were reported in a recent Swedish study. The research team, lead by Elin Ekblom-Bak, followed 4232 men and women, who were 60 years of age at the beginning of the study, for an average of 12.5 years. At the start of the study, participants completed a physical examination and survey that documented their non-exercise physical activity (home repairs, cutting the lawn, etc.); exercise habits and intensity; and lifestyle (marital status, diet, smoking, etc.). Their results showed that older adults with an active daily life decreased their risk of a first time cardiovascular disease event and all-cause mortality by 30% when compared to a sedentary lifestyle. The authors also found that regardless of regular exercise, participants who engaged in a high level of non-exercise physical activity had better waist circumferences, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides. Male participants with a high level of non-exercise physical activity had lower insulin, glucose, and fibrinogen levels. Furthermore, metabolic syndrome was significantly lower in participants who had high levels of non-exercise physical activity when compared to sedentary participants.

“In clinical practice, promoting everyday non-exercise physical activity is as important as recommending regular exercise for older adults for cardiovascular health and longevity,” concluded the authors. Their research was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The road to living a long and healthy life is not simple, but it can be. There are a lot of online resources that can help with shopping for healthy foods on a tight budget like the Environmental Working Group’s Good Food on a Tight Budget. Non-exercise physical activity throughout the day may be difficult for some occupations, so at the very least try to stand as much as you can. In a recent study from the United Kingdom, conducted in a real office setting, John Buckley and his team found that standing for 185 minutes reduced blood glucose levels after a meal by 43% when compared to sitting work. This improved glycemic regulation hints at the potential cardio-metabolic benefits of standing-based office work. I say “hints at” because this was a small study, 10 participants, so further studies need to be conducted to confirm the results.

Rodney Steadman 23 May 2014

Works Cited

Bailin D, Goldman G, & Phartiyal P (2014). Sugar-coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar. Center for Science and Demorcracy | Union of Concerned Scientists.

Buckley JP, Mellor DD, Morris M., & Joseph F (2014). Standing-based office work shows encouraging signs of attenuating post-prandial glycaemic excursion. Occupational and environmental medicine, 71 (2), 109-11 PMID: 24297826

Ekblom-Bak E, Ekblom B, Vikström M, de Faire U, & Hellénius ML (2014). The importance of non-exercise physical activity for cardiovascular health and longevity. British journal of sports medicine, 48 (3), 233-8 PMID: 24167194

Pes GM, Tolu F, Poulain M, Errigo A, Masala S, Pietrobelli A, Battistini NC, & Maioli M (2013). Lifestyle and nutrition related to male longevity in Sardinia: an ecological study. Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD, 23 (3), 212-9 PMID: 21958760

Poulain M, Herm A, & Pes G (2013). The Blue Zones: areas of exceptional longevity around the world Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, 11, 87-108 : 10.1553/populationyearbook2013s87

Malik VS, Willett WC, & Hu FB (2013). Global obesity: trends, risk factors and policy implications. Nature reviews. Endocrinology, 9 (1), 13-27 PMID: 23165161

Stephens, P. (2014, ). Food should be regulated like tobacco, say campaigners. BBC. Retrieved from

Venditti E, Wylie-Rosett J, Delahanty L, Mele L, Hoskin M, & Edelstein S (2014). Short and long-term lifestyle coaching approaches used to address diverse participant barriers to weight loss and physical activity adherence International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-16

World Health Organization (2009). Europe puts health claims to the test. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 87 (9), 651-652 DOI: 10.2471/BLT.09.020909

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