Everyone has their health problems – whether it’s those annoying health niggles that come and go, or a chronic condition, we all visit our GP practice at some point or another. But did you know that being overweight is responsible for causing many common health problems, and can also make pre-existing conditions worse? According to a recent large study in America looking at the top ten reasons why people visit their doctor, joint problems (including osteoarthritis) and back pain were found to be the second and third most common reasons 1. These were followed by conditions including high cholesterol, anxiety and depression, high blood pressure and diabetes. All of these conditions can be affected or worsened by carrying excess weight. However, rather than addressing overweight or obesity, most people expect their doctor to prescribe medication or other treatment to improve their condition.
Here are a few examples of common health conditions, and how carrying excess weight may affect these:
- Heart disease and circulatory problems – if you suffer from raised blood pressure, high cholesterol, or have had a heart attack or stroke in the past, whilst family history is a risk factor you can’t change, there’s a good chance being overweight is worsening your condition. Carrying excess fat, particularly around your middle, can raise your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, lower ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, increase blood pressure and increase risk of diabetes.
- Back pain - if you’ve started having occasional back twinges when going up the stairs, now is the time to take action. Back pain is a very commonly reported reason why people visit their GP, and losing weight can have a big impact 2.
- Joint pains – if you’re having knee pain on walking, the chances are you’ve already been to see you GP about it. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people in the UK suffer with some form of arthritis 3. Osteoarthritis occurs when connective tissue or cartilage degenerates, resulting in damage or failure of joints, and chronic pain due to bones rubbing against each other. Carrying excess weight puts extra pressure on your weight-bearing joints (like the knees). Pressure is even worse when walking on an incline. In fact the force on each knee is 2–3 times your body weight when you go up or down stairs, and 4–5 times your body weight when you pick up an item you’ve dropped 4! It’s also thought that inflammatory factors associated with weight gain may contribute to joint trouble.
- Breathing problems including COPD and asthma – if you’re overweight or obese, your symptoms are likely to be worse than if you were a healthy weight. Whilst scientists don’t fully understand the link between carrying excess weight and asthma, some reasons could include breathlessness caused by the extra weight on the lungs and chest, lower fitness levels, and getting more inflammation in the body generally 5.
- Depression is a very common condition seen by doctors and nurses in general practice. One survey found that 42% of patients with a long-standing health condition reported at least some problems with anxiety or depression, compared to 19% of patients without a chronic condition 6. Many of these underlying long-standing health condition can be improved by losing weight. It’s worth also noting that depression itself is strongly related to physical illness; people with depression are four times more likely to get a heart attack or develop heart disease 7.
Losing weight may help your condition
Research has shown that losing as little as 5–10% of your weight can result in significantly clinical improvements. This is a manageable and achievable amount to lose, equating to one stone in weight loss for an 18 stone person. The benefits of the clinical improvements listed below could be enough to reduce the amount of time you spend visiting your GP, and even reduce the amount of medication you need to take to control your condition(s). Whilst the numbers themselves may look small in some cases, they can still make an important difference to your health. It’s worth noting that losing over 10% of body weight has even more significant improvements.
Benefits of losing 5% of your body weight
- Reduction in your blood pressure – losing weight can cause a reduction in both numbers (systolic and diastolic) which make up your blood pressure reading. Several studies have found that a 5.1kg (11lb) weight loss resulted in a reduction in systolic pressure (top number) of 4.44 and diastolic pressure (bottom number) of 3.57 8. This works out as a blood pressure drop of approximately 1 mmHg for every kilogram (2.2lbs) lost 9. The effect is even greater if you have a higher blood pressure to start with.
- Reduction in your cholesterol levels – Significant improvements were seen in people with diabetes on the Look Ahead study losing 5–10% of their body weight; HDL (good) cholesterol increased by 5mg/dl and triglyceride levels reduced by 40mg/dl 10.
- Reduction in your HbA1c levels if you’re diabetic – The Look Ahead study found that a 5–10% weight loss resulted in a 0.5% decrease in Hba1c 11. Despite the apparent small number, this is a significant reduction.
- Reduces aches and pains, and improves mobility– many studies have demonstrated improvement in back and knee pain, and improved mobility 12. Research has found that 1lb of weight loss creates 4lb less pressure on knees 13.
- Helps you sleep better - if you’re obese and suffer with obstructive sleep apnoea, a 5% weight loss can improve symptoms. Even if you don’t suffer with sleep apnoea, losing weight may prolong the time you spend sleeping and improve your quality of sleep 14. In turn, if you sleep better, you’re more likely to successfully lose weight 15.
- Improves your mood – whilst there is conflicting evidence about this, some people may experience an improvement in their mood on losing weight.
- Improves your breathing – studies have found that weight loss improves symptoms and may reduce the amount of medication required in asthma 16.
- 1. St Sauver et al, 2013
- 2. St Sauver et al, 2013
- 3. Arthritis Care, 2007
- 4. Harvard Health Publications: Healthbeat, 23rd April 2015. Available from http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/why-weight-matters-when-it-comes-to-joint-pain (link removed due to none https secure connection).
- 5. Asthma UK, 2016. Available from www.asthma.org.uk/advice/living-with-asthma/weight-loss
- 6. NHS England GP patient survey 2013–14
- 7. Hippisley-Cox et al, 1998
- 8. Neter et al, 2003
- 9. Neter et al, 2003
- 10. Wing et al, 2011
- 11. Wing et al, 2011
- 12. Hooper et al, 2007; Christensen et al, 2007
- 13. Messier et al, 2005
- 14. Shade et al, 2015;
- 15. Thomson et al, 2012
- 16. Asthma UK, 2016. Available from www.asthma.org.uk/advice/living-with-asthma/weight-loss
Written by Annemarie Aburrow RD BSc (Hons) PGDip, Slim & Save Dietitian.