In late August, the Milken Institute issued a provocative study, Waistlines of the World – The Effect of Information and Communications Technology on Obesity. This report looked at 27 OECD countries between the period of 1988-2009 and the impact of knowledge-based society on obesity rates in those countries. The growth of these rates are a serious concern, as overweight and obesity together are the fifth leading cause of death worldwide, according to the report’s citation of World Health Organization statistics.
The report suggests that,
“For every 10 percentage point increase in the share of ICT spending, obesity rates will significantly rise by 1 percentage point directly and 0.4 percentage point indirectly based on the impact of additional consumption of leisure ‘screen’ time.”
The U.S. has the highest rate of obesity, leaping from 23.3% to 33.8% from 1991 to 2008. In absolute numbers and percentage growth, China’s obesity rate is a huge concern as it more than doubled between 2002 and 2008 from 2.5 to 5.7 percent and the number of overweight people doubled from 1991 to 2006.
The report is loaded with statistics like the aforementioned, but one assumption that is a given in the report, is that, “Urbanization, in general, leads to a more sedentary lifestyle and hence weight gain.” The implication is that urban areas will see higher obesity rates than will rural areas. While this may be true in developing countries, based on the study, it is not clear whether this is the case in already-urbanized countries, such as the United States.
Information and communication technology (ICT), as defined in the report, is somewhat expansive and includes,
“Information technology (IT), unified communications, telecommunications (telephone lines and wireless signals), broadcast media, all types of audio and video processing and transmission, and network-based control and monitoring functions.”
The report suggests the world’s transition to a knowledge-based society has led to changes in work habits (less manual labor, more dual income families) and lifestyles (increasing urbanization, greater caloric intake, more screen time), which lead to obesity. Backing up their conclusions are complex econometric models, that are way beyond the intellectual firepower of this reporter, but common sense says more screen time leads to a bigger waistline.
More common sense is embodied in their citation of the “last hour” rule, which,
“basically states that when the enjoyment associated with technological advances increases in sedentary leisure, people will devote more time to sedentary entertainment at the margin.”
In other words, most people will kick-off their shoes and sit in front of a screen or screens at the end of the day instead of exercising.
Prescription for Change
Their prescription for change involves governmental and employer assistance to help make exercise part of everyday life; like it was prior to screen time. Again, more common sense, but they recommend policies and programs that reduce reliance on vehicle transportation and encourage walking, bike riding and, of course, exercise programs.
Some 27 existing government and corporate programs from around the world are cited in their list. A concept of interest to telecommunications providers include their suggestion of a tighter coupling between health-care providers and people via things such as keeping track of biometric data. Another example a program that ties patients closer to health-care professionals is one started by a Ohio physician called “Walk with a Doc.”
Two programs that could be added to their list are from rural broadband operators. Spring Grove Communications, as seen in this 2010 interview, built a gym/library/community center, when it rebuilt its office; benefiting its employees, as well as the community at large. Arrowhead Electric has a simple program that rewards employees for starting and sticking to an exercise program. Both programs represent ways to help people proactively prevent broadband usage (and other screen time) from leading to a broad waistline.