Obesity is an epidemic that will have far reaching implications for the health of our nation. The statistics are frightening. Studies have shown that obesity has quadrupled in last 30 years. In fact, of the 74 million school-aged children in EU, 21 million are overweight, with growth rates suggesting this is increasing by 1 million children every year.

Additionaly, an NHS study completed in the UK in 2008 showed that

  • ——24.5% of people reported to be obese.
  • —25% of 4-5 year olds reported to be obese in certain urban areas

—The same research suggested that at current rates of growth (1% per annum) it is projected that by 2050: —60 % of men, —50 % of women and greater than 30% of children will be clinically obese in the UK.

An OECD study conducted on the problem in Ireland in 2010 suggests that it is a huge problem also on this side of the Irish Sea with

  • 24.5% Irish adults reporting to be clinically obese
  • More than 66% of Irish women reporting to be overweight
  • 50% of Irish men classed as overweight

Scarily, a recent study conducted by research staff at University of Limerick has found that mothers of overweight and obese children struggle to recognize their child as overweight or obese. The national longitudinal study of children, Growing Up in Ireland reported on 7,655 mothers and their nine year old children. Study co-author, Professor Ailish Hannigan, highlighted that “while three quarters of overweight mothers and 60% of obese mothers in the study recognised themselves as overweight or obese, mothers of overweight or obese children were much less likely to recognise this in their child.” Just 1 in 6 mothers of obese children classified their child as moderately or very overweight.

At these growth rates Ireland is projected to be the worst in world by 2030. Scarily, it will be more normal to be overweight or obese than to be of normal weight with continuation of existing trends.


Measure Body Fat


In fact the cost of our physical inactivity is costing our country approximately €1.6bn a year in dealing with many physical diseases brought on by over-weightedness such as dyslipidemia (high cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides), liver disease, cardio-vascular disease, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, sleep apnoea, stroke and gynecological problems among many others health problems.

The “silent killer” Type 2 diebetes is an ever growing problem as people poison their bodies with sugar. As blood sugar levels are so high, people don’t have enough insulin in their bodies to regulate their blood sugar levels and so need to inject themselves daily with extra insulin to avoid chronic organ failure and serious illness. This goes hand in hand with growth in obesity rates as Diabetes increased 66% over the last decade. (Hardoon et al., 2010)

The problems are growing at an alarming rate – so much so that Dr Eva Orsmond recently said on a TV documentary that the current Irish teenage population could be the first generation ever to die before their parents.

Mental health has become very topical in recent times and it is no surprise. A study in 2006 reported that if one is obese, they are 25% more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression (Simon et al., 2006). As such, our depression and anxiety rates are growing arm in arm with our obesity levels at about 0.5% per annum (Kessler et al., 2005) and currently lie at about 20% of the population.

So what is the link between exercise and depression?

Their are a few mechanisms for this effect. How do you feel after you do a good workout? Tired? Yes but something else is also happening.

When you exercise, your brain releases a chemical called seratonin – a good mood juice, that seeps through your blood stream and into all your working muscles, helping them to relax. Some may relate to this by how they feel after a good session of swimming when they feel very relaxed. In fact swimming is one of the better exercises for seratonin release as every muscle in the body is worked during a swim session.

Exercise also regulates the working of the thyroid gland; The thyroid gland controls metabolic rate and if it is not working properly, can cause you to experience various symptoms. If it is under-active, you will feel sluggish and lethargic, may put on weight, and feel depressed.

In a recent meta-analysis, it was found that 33 studies have shown that exercise can have positive affect on mood & alleviate depression (Biddle, 2009). The study confirmed that Exercise

  • Improves psychological/emotional health.
  • Reduces/alleviates depression, stress and anxiety.
  • Reduces negative mood and enhances positive mood.
  • Enhances self-esteem, confidence and sleep.
  • Improves quality of life & social relationships.
  • Increases serotonin levels in the brain.
  • Regulates thyroid gland.

In fact a study by Craft in 2005 showed that exercising moderately 5 times per week reduced depression levels by over 75% in clinically depressed patients. We were not born to sit on a sofa and mope about our perceived hardships. Exercise is the antidote to stress and anxiety but the pharmacological firms don’t want us to know this. Stress and anxiety for them equals money.

Our government fail to acknowledge or act on this as they have downgraded the status of physical education in our schools. As more progressive thinking countries (Finland and UK for example) are extending time allocations for physical education, Ireland have recently announced that PE will be incorporated as a short course Junior Cycle subject or as a smaller part of a bigger subject area. If the science shows that exercise can have such a positive impact on people’s lives, then why is such a key subject area being downgraded especially given the depth of our obesity problem and the longer term effect on the physical and mental health system?

Additionally, those who are overweight and under-exercised may develop various psychological issues from being uncomfortable in their own skin to various forms of mental illness such as social physique anxiety, eating disorders, exercise obsession (OCD) and body dis-morphic disorder. In fact psychologists are now inundated with clients looking for help with their levels of unhappiness and depression in general society.


Exercise however, won’t fix all mental health issues as some problems  may be caused by a traumatic event or experience. This can only be fixed by talking about it. There is an obvious problem with our youth as suicide rates are growing exponentially. In a recent newspaper article, Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin suggested that it has reached epidemic proportions. Can the doctors and mental health specialists all be wrong when they voice their expertise on the matter? In fact a doctor friend of mine recently suggested that the number of young people reporting with mental health issues has pushed the current system past its breaking point and that schools are grossly mistreated. His recommendation was that there should be a psychologist attached to every school of 500 or more and psychologists hours shared among smaller schools.

We have seen huge issues for our young people with almost daily reports of suicide and missing persons in the news. The governments cut to provision of guidance counselors in all schools is having serious ramifications as our young people struggle through daily pressures. Many struggle with pressure to meet their huge life expectations garnered through peer pressure and projections of peer perfection through social media. Being just a “normal” kid is never enough any more as adolescents really struggle to find their way through their “unsure of themselves” teenage years. The services are not there in the volume they are needed and our youth are paying the price.

Somebody needs to do something

bressie oireachtas

Niall Breslin (aka Bressie) recently addressed the Oireachtas on this very matter. Promises will be made with the impending election but we will continue with the status quo as families watch their loved ones in depression and despair. The politicians have the power. Lets see if they react in an appropriate fashion.

                                                                        Open Your Mind

Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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