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Fitness machine

Over-50s like Boris Johnson mustn’t be overlooked in the government’s post-COVID obesity drive

A post-COVID drive to tackle obesity will be hugely welcome. But those in their 50s and 60s must not be left out.

Our Associate Director for Healthy Ageing, Alison Giles, argues that tackling obesity at all ages is crucial to improving the nation's health and reducing inequalities. 

We heard this morning that Boris Johnson’s brush with death as he battled with coronavirus has produced a new zeal for tackling obesity among the UK’s population. This is a well-overdue focus, and it’s absolutely right that the health crisis we’re facing today should point government minds in this direction: many of the underlying conditions that put someone at a greater risk from the disease, such as diabetes and heart disease, are linked to obesity. Obesity also affects lung function and interferes with the body's immune response to viral infections. There are fears that in countries with high levels of obesity, coronavirus will affect more people at younger ages than was previously thought.

It is vital that we help people develop the right health behaviours and attitudes at the earliest stages in life, but all too often, public health initiatives to tackle obesity focus only on getting kids running around – and write off those at older ages. But as Mr Johnson now well knows, those in their 50s and 60s face serious risks to their health with the potential to mar or even cut short the many years of life still ahead of them. As our report on The State of Ageing showed last year, levels of obesity in later life are shockingly high: more than 7 in 10 people between the ages of 45 and 64 in England are either overweight or obese.

There are of course huge wealth inequalities within these numbers. Almost half of the poorest men (47%) and women (45%) aged 50 and over in England are obese. If we didn’t already understand the tragic impact of health inequalities like this, surely the spread of COVID-19 deaths has brought it home to us: death rates for the poorest in the UK are twice as high as those for the most well-off. This realisation surely must spur real action to tackle the preventable causes of ill-health that lead to such different outcomes for the richest and the poorest in our society.

Activity levels decrease with age – currently, nearly half of people aged 55-64 aren’t physically active enough to achieve good health, and the implications of inactivity at this age are just as serious as a sedentary lifestyle for kids.

Improving levels of physical activity is of course central to this and the Prime Minister’s interest in promoting cycling is very welcome. Activity levels decrease with age – currently, nearly half of people aged 55-64 aren’t physically active enough to achieve good health, and the implications of inactivity at this age are just as serious as a sedentary lifestyle for kids. Tackling the barriers that stop people from being active in later life is absolutely vital to reducing health inequalities and improving healthy life expectancies. Walking and cycling are important contributors to activity levels in later life. The Government has brought forward investment to make changes to our roads to promote more walking and cycling as an aid to social distancing and it is to be hoped that these changes become permanent. The fitness and leisure sector also has a potential role to play in supporting older adults to remain physically active. As we start to exit lockdown and these services re-open, we need a wider range of offers that meet the needs, capabilities and aspirations of older generations.

However, we also need to see strong action taken to tackle our food environment. In 2018 the Government published part 2 of its childhood obesity plan. Many of the policies it set out have yet to be implemented. Now is the perfect time to pick up that agenda and address the price, location and promotion of food products that are high in salt, sugar and saturated fats. Coming out of lockdown, the majority of us will welcome action to help us lose the extra kilos we’ve gained.

We’re likely to be looking at many things differently as we emerge from this coronavirus outbreak, and it is to be hoped that a greater understanding of the need to prevent ill-health, rather than just treat it, is one of them. The news that the Prime Minister plans a renewed attack on obesity is a hopeful sign. But if this new drive is to succeed where previous measures have failed, it must look across the life course, not just at any one age group, and it must address the obesogenic environment we currently live in.

Ageing Better's response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Alison Giles
Joint Associate Director for Healthy Ageing