Leading the Sedentary Life: China & India

Obesity, a word that was almost never used until the late 1900s, emerged into the public view as a prevalent worldwide health problem fairly recently. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world has a prevalence of obesity in adults of more than 20%. That means that about one in five random people is obese. Also, note that the word “obese” indicates a more severe condition than merely being overweight. Even more dramatically, countries that have recently endured or are still undergoing nationwide famine, including China and India, are also facing the health challenge of obesity.

What caused all of these catastrophic changes? The variance of reasons for this can be generalized into one overarching cause: input with almost no output. One of the most popular theories among the Chinese maintains that everything should be in balance — also supported by the fact that nature favors equilibrium. The nutrition that people absorb is the input. That input, or chemical energy, is transferred into outputs, forms of biological energy, which in turn support the activities people perform every day. When people exercise too much without having enough food (when the output exceeds the input) a famine is produced. When the converse happens, and people are absorbing input while doing less activities to serve as output, excess weight gain is the result.

The significant decrease in daily activity and fitness is the outcome of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Collected data reveals major growth in the total number of cars sold from 1990 to 2014, and the number increases annually. The detrimental effects of vehicles on people’s levels of activity is easily discernible, especially in the populations of China and India. Gagan Juneja, senior citizen of India, said in an interview with CNN: “Everyone has a scooty [a kind of popular electric bike]. There is no walking at all. No outdoor activity at all.” Meanwhile, in China, the same phenomenon is occurring in a more extreme way, in part due to the rising preference that people have for driving as opposed to walking. See this article by the Wall Street Journal.

The fact that more and more people are becoming car owners also reveals the increasing financial security that Chinese and Indians have, which directly relates to growing parental concerns in these countries about the edification of the next generation. With many parents now possessing the funds to send their children to institutions of higher education, the pressure put on young people to study and attend top schools is magnified, especially due to the limited space in most of these educational institutions. With this phenomenon, the time that students commit to sitting down and completing schoolwork skyrockets.

Another reason that residents of these places are experiencing weight gain is because of the overconsumption of fast foreign foods, which typically contain high levels of calories, fats and many artificial ingredients. The spread of western food chains, such as McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, has contributed significantly to the influx of calories in the diets of many Chinese. Even worse, the so-called thrifty genes that developed (in people like the Pacific Islanders) as a biological counter to years of famine gives such people greater ability to absorb and retain the nutritive “inputs” that can cause obesity.

The primary reason for the seriousness of this development was, in both countries, the fact that it happened so fast. Nobody can adapt to such drastic societal and infrastructural changes, either socially or biologically, and thus the sedentary lifestyle has wreaked havoc on people’s health. This sudden transformation of the collective lifestyle broke the balance of people’s biological systems, and because of the measures the body had already developed to equip it for famine and shortage, the opposite problem — that of over-consumption — has caused a reversal of health trends in China and India.