The Steady Increase in Obesity Worldwide

A recent study published in the Lancet estimates that in 2010, overweight and obesity caused 3.4 million deaths worldwide. This study grew from the work of dozens of global researchers, who compiled obesity/overweight rates for 183 countries, and reported that the number increased from 857 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion individuals in 2013. With 62% of overweight/obese individuals coming from developing countries, study results show that no regional, ethnic, or economic group is immune to the rise in weight-related health issues. The study also points out that no country has reported success in reducing this epidemic in the past 33 years.

Although the Lancet study does not dive into the causes behind the rise in overweight and obese individuals, many researchershave pointed to overall decreases in both the availability of fresh foods and levels of physical activity. As global environments continue to develop in a manner that separates people from food systems, and as technology makes labor-intensive activity less necessary, it is crucial that health is prioritized in community development. Certain cities in both developed and developing nations have recognized this need and started to design with health in mind. These cities have engaged in innovative projects to improve pedestrian facilities, preserve green spaces and parks, and increase multi-modal transportation systems, among other initiatives.

The city of Seoul, South Korea opened up an old waterway called Cheonggyecheon, which over the years had been covered by a maze of expressways. After a $384 million recovery project that removed 3 miles highway, the waterway became the key to revitalizing the local ecosystem, dramatically improving air quality, and serving as a space for community engagement and play. The stream, whose location was previously only used by cars, now receives over 90,000 pedestrian visits per day.

The city of Vancouver has put forth a long-term comprehensive plan for developing a ‘healthy city.’ Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy offers a holistic plan for city growth that promotes resident activity and health, while also aligning with other priorities, such as housing and homelessness. The plan sets forth the goal of increasing the number of commuters who bike or walk from 40% to at least 2/3 of residents by the year 2040.

Finally, Nairobi’s residents are benefitting from the Kenyan government’s creation of 60 miles of bike lanes alongside its new superhighway. Nairobi officials also decreased taxes on bikes, lowering the cost from about $14 to $12 per bike. Local residents have enthusiastically taken to the new bike lanes. Traffic going into the city from surrounding towns can cause a two or three-hour commute by car, whereas a bike commute can be as low as 20 minutes.

Although the Lancet article reports that nations as a whole have not yet made strides in the fight against obesity and chronic diseases, these examples of innovations at the municipal level indicate a more promising future. Perhaps widespread adaptation of similar initiatives can halt, and eventually even reverse, global rates of weight-related chronic diseases.

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    Seoul's Cheonggyeon waterway was revitalized after being covered by major expressways. Today it provides a crucial green space for community engagement and play; Photo Credit: Alexander Robinson.
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    Two-way separated bike lanes in Vancouver. Photo: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun.
  • Proximity to parks and recreational facilities is linked to higher levels of physical activity and healthier weight levels.

  • Medical costs associated with obesity are estimated at $147 billion per year.