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Physical inactivity adding to India's NCD burden: report

Jul 21, 2016

According to the report, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise due to unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.

New Delhi: According to a new report, promoting healthy behaviours among young people is a key to curbing a growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The report by Population Reference Bureau highlights how establishing healthy behaviours early in life could be instrumental in changing the course of NCDs within one generation.

Authored by Toshiko Kaneda, senior research associate, and Reshma Naik, senior policy analyst, the report underlines how these behaviours that often begin during adolescence or young adulthood, linger on and create conditions for NCDs in later part of life.

Major NCDs including cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and cancers are primarily caused by exposure to tobacco, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diet, and very little exercise.

Experts believe that behaviours starting in adolescence determine health and wellbeing for a lifetime. This policy report comes just on the heels of a World Health Organization (WHO) report released two days ago emphasizing on the magnitude of NCDs in the region including India.

The report cautions that without lasting lifestyle changes, NCDs would result in a large number of premature deaths. Already, Indians have a 26 percent chance of dying prematurely between the ages of 30 and 70 due to the four major NCDs. NCDs account for 60 percent of all deaths in India, according to the WHO.

The report highlights that while India is taking relevant steps to address the health issues caused by harmful substances such as tobacco by introducing health warnings on tobacco packs, banning and restricting advertisement, raising taxes to make them less affordable and accessible to the public, there is an urgent need to focus on fostering healthy behaviours among India’s youth.

The report also recommends strengthening regulations governing the food industry such as setting maximum salt, sugar or saturated fat content in food products, food labelling, and taxes on soda.

The report also suggests  the creation of safe public spaces and infrastructure for sports, active transport, and other forms of physical activity; the introduction of effective school-based interventions on diet and physical activity; and involving young people, families, schools, and communities in addressing the issue of physical inactivity and unhealthy eating.

Unhealthy diet and minimal physical activity contribute to overweight and obesity and consequently to NCDs such as type-2 diabetes, CVD, strokes, and certain cancers.  The food processing industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Indian economy and accounts for about 50-60 percent of the sugar, salt and fats consumed, making it challenging to encourage healthy diets among young people.

Moreover, seven of every 10 boys and girls in the 13-15 year age group in India get too little exercise, around less than 60 minutes per day.  More than one in five of them are overweight or obese, placing them at a high risk of developing NCDs.

Dr Anand Krishnan, Professor - Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS, believes that aggressive marketing of these foods sets eating patterns for life from early childhood. “We live in an age of convenience where both urban and rual people are increasingly eating processed food and fast food, leading to a rapid increase in the obese population.”

Krishnan noted that international burger-pizza chains are not the only culprits as even Indian fast food chains are serving unhealthy, high calorie foods. “There is an urgent need for both the government and private sector to adopt an integrated approach and work in close coordination to identify effective solutions and reduce the NCD burden of the nation,” he said.

Among 13- to 15-year-old secondary school students in India, 19 percent of boys and 8 percent of girls have used a tobacco product in the past month. Most of this consumption is of non-commercially produced cigarettes—tobacco products like bidi, an inexpensive hand-rolled cigarette made of unprocessed tobacco wrapped in leaves.

Dr. Monika Arora, Director, Health Promotion Division, Public Health Foundation of India, said that easy access to unregulated products like e-cigarettes and hukkah further exacerbates their vulnerability. “Myriad varieties in which tobacco is available in Asia, makes tobacco a very versatile product for adolescent and young people,” she said.

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