Physical inactivity may diminish benefits of better nutrition

by Keith Nunes
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The food and beverage industry has witnessed the development and the implementation of a plethora of schemes intended to improve the nutritional health and wellness of consumers. The efforts range from additional information on menus and Nutrition Facts Panels, the taxation of specific products deemed less healthy, and tightening specifications for how products must be formulated in order to qualify to be served in schools. Yet these efforts will be moot if another equally significant issue is not successfully addressed — physical inactivity.

On April 22, the Physical Activity Council, a group consisting of six sports and manufacturer trade groups representing such industries as sports and fitness, tennis and outdoor activities, released its annual Participation Report and found that 82.7 million Americans ages 6 and up were physically inactive as measured by the council’s 2014 definition. This figure is an increase from 2013 when the group said 80.2 million Americans were defined as physically inactive.

The Physical Activity Council defines an inactive person as someone who does not participate in any of the 104 sports and activities covered by the Participation Report. The activities may include such individual activities as walking, running, stretching, swimming and camping as well as a variety of team sports.

“The high rate of inactivity is fundamentally alarming,” said Tom Cove, chairman of the Physical Activity Council and president and chief executive officer of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. “While we can look at this number in a negative light, I would like to use it as a wakeup call to not only our industry but the rest of society. The benefits of increasing activity are well documented for individuals and for the country. It’s time we put our time and resources into industry initiatives and national campaigns to increase physical activity.”

As Mr. Cove says, inactivity for younger age groups flattened in 2014 while there was a sharp increase of inactivity for those 65 and older. Consumers ages 18 to 24 were an exception, with inactivity actually decreasing slightly — 0.2 per cent from the 2013 survey. For most age groups, though, overall inactivity appeared to be on the rise.

The reasons behind the sports and fitness industry’s focus on physical inactivity are obvious. But the group’s report should be equally alarming for food and beverage manufacturers.

Rarely does a month go by where the cost of obesity and obesity-related health issues are not discussed. Obesity-related medical treatment costs are estimated at between $147 billion and $210 billion per year, or nearly 10% of all annual medical spending, according to The State of Obesity report which is published by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The costs are not only borne by the individual. As the State of Obesity report adds obesity-related job absenteeism costs approximately $4.3 billion annually, and as a person’s body mass index increases so do the number of sick days, medical claims and health care costs associated with that individual.

Addressing the issue of obesity requires a two-prong approach and necessitates change of behavior related to both diet and exercise. It certainly could be argued that the food and beverage industry has gone to extraordinary lengths to increase the availability of products that may be described as healthy. The challenge facing this industry is quantifying the impact of offering foodstuffs to the marketplace that feature an improved nutritional profile.

It is questionable whether a person may achieve wellness without investing time and energy in adopting a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle. Still, the public health and regulatory focus will remain on diet rather than exercise, because it is easier to change the behavior of an industry rather than a population. That means the food and beverage industry will continue to face additional regulatory proposals that may impact product formulations beyond those that are already in the making.

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