Sedentary Lifestyle May Have a Greater Impact on Obesity Than Poor Diet

Sedentary lifestyle may have a greater impact on obesity than poor diet. Photo: Pexels
Sedentary lifestyle may have a greater impact on obesity than poor diet. Photo: Pexels

Contrary to popular belief, lack of physical activity is more linked to obesity than diet.

This conclusion comes from a recent study by the School of Economics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) released last week. The research was based on data from the National Health Survey (PNS) and the Family Budget Survey (POF), both by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

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At least six out of ten Brazilians are overweight or obese. However, the overlapping data shows that there’s no statistically significant difference in the type of food consumed in households of obese people compared to those of thin people. On the other hand, the frequency of physical activity is significantly higher in households where people are thinner.


An individual is considered obese when their Body Mass Index (weight/height x height) is equal to or greater than 30 kilograms per square meter. A BMI above 25 already indicates overweight.
The goal of the study is to support the development of public health policies by deepening knowledge about the issue and identifying the most effective measures against excess weight (more information on this page). The current obesity rate in the country is 20.1%, and the overweight rate is 56%.

The number of overweight men exceeds that of women. However, women prevail in obesity rates. According to the PNS data, the obesity prevalence among women is 22%, compared to 18% among men. On the other hand, the male overweight rate is 39%, against 34% for women.

Cross-referencing data from different IBGE surveys revealed that weekly diets in populations with normal weight and in those with overweight or obesity do not show statistically relevant differences.

For instance, the weekly frequency at which people consume fish, beans, or natural fruit juice is quite similar when groups are defined by their BMI. The same goes for the intake of ultra-processed foods.

“When we look at the consumption habits of the Brazilian family, they are very similar, regardless of individual weight; the consumption of beans, vegetables, and fruits is quite alike”, explained economist Márcio Holland, the main author of the study. “Ultra-processed food consumption is also similar, ranging between 9% and 10%.”

Limited Exercise

The same does not happen when BMI is overlaid with sedentary levels. According to the figures, 36% of obese individuals exercise regularly, compared to 40% of those with normal weight.
In general, Brazilians exercise little, on average only one day per week. Other IBGE figures are also alarming, like the average time Brazilians spend in front of a screen daily: about three hours.

“This is very concerning,” says Holland. “Especially since we are at the beginning of the aging process of the population. Today, 13% of the population is over 65; by 2060, this percentage will be 26%. And the trend is that BMI increases throughout life.”

Endocrinologist Clayton Macedo, coordinator of the Physical Activity Department of the Brazilian Association of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome Studies (Abeso), notes that such data intersection may have biases and that diet may have a greater influence than observed. However, he says that it’s already proven through other studies that regular physical activity is the primary factor in maintaining a lower weight throughout life.

“Exercise prevents what we call metabolic adaptation, which is the increase in appetite, reduced feeling of fullness, and a drop in metabolic rate as we age,” said the endocrinologist.

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