Snail Bandwagon

Can’t Reverse Obesity Trends Without My Pet Project

As health authorities in the U.K. whip up fears about obesity, it becomes fodder for entertainment writers. With a witty headline, Brian Beacom tells us that he has the answer for obesity. “There’s fat chance of tackling obesity without school sports investment,” he writes. Of course, not a shred of evidence supports his assertion. But that’s the beauty of obesity. Since none of us fully understand the problem, anyone can claim that the solution lies with their own pet project.

School sports, walking paths, bringing down big food, veganism. Whatever your passion is, you can claim it offers the answer for obesity.

The Evidence for School Sports

The evidence for Beacom’s claim is pretty thin. Like many other things that people propose to reverse obesity trends, school sports have merit. But solid evidence that participation will improve fitness is lacking. Recently, Laura Kabiri et al studied this question and concluded that participation in organized sports is not associated with better fitness. Opportunities for unstructured physical activity might be important.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis of school based physical activity programs finds no effect on BMI. That’s not to say that they’re not beneficial. In fact, these programs can indeed have benefits for health. However, they appear to do nothing to reduce the prevalence of obesity.

The Kitchen Sink Strategy

A natural response to this dismal fact is to say, what’s the harm? Shouldn’t we throw everything we can think of at obesity and see what works?

Well, the devil is in the details of that proposition. Maybe there’s good reason to think a particular idea might work – plus it’s not too costly, unlikely to be harmful, and generates goodwill. In that case, giving it a try makes sense, so long as we don’t pretend that we already know it will work.

On the other hand, in the face of evidence that something won’t work, promoting it as a good thing for reversing obesity trends is an exercise in self-deception. We have too much of that.

More Objectivity and Curiosity, Please

Not everyone’s pet project will reverse obesity trends. Some of them might. Others definitely won’t. To arrive at real, effective solutions, we need more curiosity about what works and what doesn’t. And to sort that out, we will need a passion for objectivity.

Click here and here for further evidence on the effects of physical activity programs for preventing obesity.

Snail Bandwagon, photograph © Angus / flickr

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July 6, 2019