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Exercise halved obesity levels in new research

By 25 February 2020No Comments

Sport activity is often tossed aside when discussing Scotland’s rising obesity problem as if it has little or no role to play, but new research suggests that a combination of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity – common in a wide range of casual and traditional sport activity – can halve obesity levels, improving lives and saving the economy billions of pounds.

After a significant rise from 1995, to 65% of adults being classed as overweight and 29% obese, levels of obesity in Scotland have remained fairly stable in the past decade. Scotland remains in the world’s top ten most obese nations per head of population, however, according to the OECD. Diet is a central factor and regular activity in children can reduce the likelihood of becoming overweight in adult life. However, research published in the journal ‘Obesity’ this month reveals how activity plays a significant role in preventing adults from becoming overweight and reducing weight to relieve physical and mental health and wellbeing issues.

The research, conducted by Bennie et al 2020 (, was pooled from four USA public health surveillance surveys from 2011 to 2017. It involved nearly 1.7m people over the age of 18. It showed that meeting the recommended guidelines for both aerobic exercise and strengthening exercise halved the prevalence of having a BMI >30 (obese) and reduced to 20 percent the chance of having a BMI>40 (extremely obese).

According to Scottish Government figures*, 65% of adults aged 16 and over are classed as overweight, and 29% obese. Men are more likely to be overweight (67% compared to 63%), but women more likely to be obese (30% to 27%). The figures show that a third of Scotland’s young people aged 16 to 24 in 2017 were overweight compared with 55 percent of people aged 25-34, a rise that continued through the life cycle. And the impact on Scotland is severe. Treating conditions associated purely with weight problems is reported by government to cost up to £600m per year and, when you include lost productivity through weight-related issues and sickness, the Scottish economy loses somewhere between £1 billion and £4 billion, every year.

The Scottish Health Survey revealed that 66% of Scottish adults over 16 meet the recommended guidelines for aerobic activity – 150 mins/week of moderate physical activity or 75 mins vigorous physical activity – or an equivalent combination of these, but there is no equivalent Scottish data on strengthening exercises; a clear knowledge gap in Scotland. This latest research demonstrates the strength of association between physical activity categories and obesity increased with increasing levels of obesity severity and provides further evidence of the work required in Scotland to address the major health problems around high levels of obesity.

The OSS produces insight and analysis on the impact of regular sport activity and recreation on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of people in all parts of Scotland.