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Spending on technology equals more obesity, study shows

Businesswoman working on laptop in cubicle
Businesswoman working on laptop in cubicle
/ Source: NBC News

Lots of things are making people fat — what we eat, how we eat and a lack of exercise. Now a report tries to tease out the precise effect of technology such as the TVs and computer screens that keep us sitting still instead of moving around.

It comes up with a surprisingly consistent statistic: For every 10 percent rise in what a country spends on information and communications technology, there’s a 1 percent increase in obesity rates.

Technology doesn’t just keep people in their chairs and on sofas, according to the report from the nonprofit Milken Institute. It changes the way people eat, also – adding even more pounds than the lack of exercise alone would.

It’s not all bad news. The report also points to programs being run by employers and by state and local governments that can help counteract the effect, from installing bike lanes to providing free, healthy snacks at the office.

“Many factors contribute to obesity. In our research, we controlled for several independent variables: physical activity, caloric intake and type of diet, growth of urban population, carbon-dioxide emissions, women in the labor force, alcohol consumption, and smoking,” economist Anusuya Chatterjee and Ross DeVol, chief research officer at the Milken Institute, write in their report. They found a 1 percentage point increase in the number of physically active people can prevent a 0.2 percentage point rise in obesity.

DeVol says the report tries to get past common wisdom and put some actual numbers on the effect. “Common sense says if you sit around in front of the screen, don’t exercise while you are working, change your diet…you are going to gain weight,” he said in a telephone interview.

“There’s been little cross-country work showing the connection is a causal fashion as opposed to common sense.”

Chatterjee and DeVol studied the economies and obesity rates for 1988–2009 in 27 countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.

It took years. “It was a huge undertaking just trying to collect all this data,” DeVol says. But they came up with a fairly precise pattern. “For every 10 percentage point increase in information communications technology investment as a share of gross capital formation, the obesity rate climbs 1.4 percentage point on average—or roughly 4.2 million people in a nation the size of the United States,” Chatterjee and DeVol wrote.

“To reach that conclusion, we used the direct effect of less strenuous work and more sedentary home behaviors (1.0 percent), and the indirect effect of higher caloric consumption during screen-time activities (0.4 percent).”

The lag time? About five years or so, DeVol said.

The report looks at the 14 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which focuses on boosting economies. “All member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have witnessed greater prevalence of obesity in their populations over the past two decades, but the United States tops the list,” says the report.

“In America, about 1 in 3 adults (33.8 percent) is obese, followed by Mexico (30 percent), New Zealand (26.5 percent), Australia (24.6 percent), and Canada (24.2 percent).” More than two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, which raises the risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, arthritis and several types of cancer.

Developed countries need to be aware, but DeVol said developing nations such as China and India should really take note. “When you start looking at just a 1 percent increase in obesity rates in a country like China, it translates into 10 million more people,” he said.

So what can help? The nonprofit think-tank’s report points to some approaches that have worked.

Dow Chemical, for example, pays for every penny of weight loss counseling for workers and their families, including face-to-face visits with dietitians and membership in groups such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.

General Mills provides fitness facilities at many of its offices and factories. “Another innovation is the introduction of ‘nutrition centers’ at its research and development facilities that offer free healthy food,” the report reads.

Governments can do a lot as well. In the Netherlands, bicyclists have generous, separated lanes with their own traffic signals. Walk Denver is a non-profit group dedicated to helping people incorporate walking into their daily lives by making streets safer, providing shops and other attractions for walkers, and coordinating “walking school buses” to encourage children to walk to school.

“Employers must realize that they have a vested interest in providing behavioral modification counseling and offering financial and other incentives to workers,” the report says. “Governments must invest in infrastructure to induce biking. Policymakers must create policies and programs that encourage walking and physical activity overall.”

People need to be better educated about their health, and programs at the local level are essential, DeVol and Chatterjee say.