Diseases of affluence

Quakers committed, at Canterbury, to sustainability. Mandy Moore believes that they should make stewardship of their own bodies a top priority.

A hospital corridor | Photo: boliston / flickr CC

I am not against sustainability – far from it. The wanton and ongoing rape, pillage and plunder of our planet disturbs me deeply. What agitates me, though, is that, when we think about sustainability, we tend to overlook one of the most important aspects of stewardship – stewardship of our own bodies.

As Quakers, this should be of paramount importance. For me it is particularly so. I work as a fitness professional. It is a career that I moved into after surviving a life-threatening battle with cancer. The experience made me re-evaluate my career, my goals and my priorities. With my survival attributed, in no small part, to my own personal levels of fitness, I decided to drop out of the corporate world, retrain as a fitness instructor and dedicate my life to helping others avoid, or survive, such killer diseases as the one I had had to endure.

Hypokinetic diseases

As a fitness professional, I have become very aware of the human body’s needs in terms of diet and exercise. I have also become profoundly frustrated by our modern lifestyle and the detrimental effect it has on our fitness and health. Each of us has to make a special effort to look after our bodies. Most of us do not. In fact, most people subject their bodies to the most appalling neglect and abuse. I believe it is incumbent upon us, as Quakers, to make stewardship of our bodies an absolutely top priority.

Alongside my professional commitments, I serve as a volunteer community health champion for the North East Essex NHS Trust. As part of my role, I spend half a day each week working on a weight-loss programme aimed at the overweight and the obese. The training I have received to qualify me for this role has made me very much aware of the huge and rapidly growing costs associated with the treatment of hypokinetic diseases.

Hypokinetic diseases are those that are considered to be the ‘diseases of affluence’. These are conditions that are attributable to a sedentary lifestyle. They include coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, hypertension/high blood pressure, stroke, adult-onset type 2 diabetes, some cancers and, of course, excess weight and obesity. They also include joint and skeletal conditions caused by the carriage of excess weight.

The financial cost

The direct cost to the NHS of treating these hypokinetic diseases was £1bn in 2001 (at 2007 prices) and a whopping £17.4bn in 2007. The cost to the country, however, is significantly more due to the cost of lost productivity, the administration of sick pay, the provision of care and so on. Indeed, the National Audit Office estimates that these indirect costs dwarf the direct NHS costs by seven hundred per cent: on that basis, therefore, the true cost of hypokinetic disease was £7bn in 2001 and £122bn in 2007. By 2015 – which is not that far away – these figures are expected to rise to a direct NHS cost of £19.5bn and a national cost of £136.5bn (which equates to a massive 9.5 per cent of gross domestic product, GDP).

The environmental cost

These figures are startling enough; but, as I wanted to come at the issue from a sustainability rather than a financial perspective, I decided to cross-reference GDP with national CO2 emissions to quantify the impact that hypokinetic disease is having on the environment. I was profoundly shocked by what I discovered: in 2015, the industrial activity required to account for the economic cost of hypokinetic disease will generate some fifty-four million tonnes of CO2.

In contrast, the UK’s travel and tourism industry (which includes all air travel) will be responsible for the production of ‘just’ twenty million tonnes of CO2 the production of twenty-one per cent of UK CO2 emissions in 2010 – some 119 million tonnes; however, due to technological advances, and despite increasing traffic volumes, this is decreasing by over ten per cent per year and is expected to account for less than seventy million tonnes in 2015. This still makes road traffic a mammoth polluter.

By 2025, however, the national cost of hypokinetic disease will have risen to £150bn and the corresponding CO2 emissions are expected to significantly outstrip those produced by road traffic. They will completely dwarf those produced by travel and tourism. Hypokinetic disease will have thus become the UK’s monster polluter.

So, when we think about sustainability should we not be looking inwards instead of outwards? Being overweight and neglecting our own fitness is actually a greater threat to the future sustainability of our planet than almost anything else we might want to target.

Sustainable lifestyles

A Body Mass Index (BMI) of between twenty and twenty-five is considered normal/healthy; five thirty-minute sessions of moderate exercise each week is considered the minimum required to maintain a healthy body.

If, as Quakers, our individual and collective BMIs are not less than twenty-five, and if we are not each doing an average of two and a half hours of moderate exercise a week (or, at the very least, be moving very tangibly towards those targets), we are contributing to a greater long-term threat to the future sustainability of our planet than that posed by either air travel or road transport. If that is the case (age and infirmity aside), do we really have the moral authority to campaign for a more sustainable planet or to place stewardship as one of our core testimonies?

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