Is your smartphone making you obese?

The authors of this research which identifies a possible link between obesity and the use of smartphones say that there are more devices than inhabitants on the planet and that they have become an inherent part of human life. Looks like GPs will need to add another question to their usual, ‘How much do you drink?’ ‘How much do you smoke?’ … ‘How much time do you spend on your ‘phone?’

This is an edited version of a report on Medscape which was itself translated and adapted from Medscape Spanish Edition.

Young people who spend more than 5 hours a day on smartphones are more likely to be overweight and obese; this, experts say, means we need to reconsider strategies and use technology to help promote physical activity in this age group.

The message came from a Colombian study presented at the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Latin American Conference 2019, which took place between 25th and 27th July in Cartagena, Colombia.

Sedentary Behaviour

“Spending too much time on your smartphone facilitates sedentary behaviour, reduces physical activity, increases the risk of premature death, diabetes, heart disease, different types of cancer, osteoarticular problems and muscular-skeletal symptoms,” the lead author of the study, Mirary Mantilla-Morrón, said in a news release.

She is a physiotherapist specialising in cardiac, pulmonary and vascular rehabilitation at the Centre for Diagnostic Cardiology Research, Caribbean Foundation for Biomedic Research, run by Simón Bólivar University in Barranquilla, Colombia.

“Young people do everything via their mobiles…but if the person concerned is already obese, and does not lead a healthy lifestyle, smartphone use should be minimal, because risk factors already exist,” she said.

Study Details

Together with Dr Miguel Urina-Triana, from the same institution, Mantilla-Morrón assessed 1,060 students (700 women and 360 men) with an average age of 19 ± 3.6 and 20.3 ± 3.8 years, respectively. The young people answered a questionnaire that included the amount of hours spent on their smartphones and data regarding height and weight, which enabled the researchers to explore the relationship between the level of device usage and body mass index (BMI).

In the first analysis, the researchers found that 274 men and women (25.8%) were overweight (BMI > 25 kg/m2) and 47 (4.4%) were obese (BMI > 30 kg/m2). From this total, 49.8% (160) said they spent more than 5 hours a day on their mobile device.

Only three students who were overweight (1.1%), and none of the obese participants, indicated that they used their smartphone between 1-2 hours a day, compared to 19 (2.8%) who were a normal weight.

Mantilla-Morrón and Dr Urina-Triana confirmed a significant statistical relationship between an increase in BMI and hours spent on a mobile.

Association or cause-and-effect?

The design of this study did not allow researchers to establish an unequivocal cause-and-effect relationship, rather an association, correlation or covariation between the two variables, psychologist Richard Lopez PhD told Medscape in Spanish. He’s a researcher at the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University, Houston, US, who recently explored the relationship between multi-tasking in young people and the risk of obesity. Mantilla-Morrón is convinced that intensive smartphone use, “does not cause obesity, but it is one of the factors that increases its likelihood”.

According to a study of American adolescents published in 2016, and cited by the authors, those who spent more than 5 hours in front of a screen – television, smartphones, video games, computers and tablets – were 43% more likely to become obese, compared to those who spent time doing other activities. This is something that could be attributed, at least in part, to greater consumption of sugary drinks and snacks, and less physical activity.

The study conducted by Lopez also suggests that ‘overload’ by simultaneous use of multiple digital devices increases the likelihood of craving food and reduces self-control – which could cause a weight gain.

Apps to encourage exercise

How do we tackle the problem? For Mantilla-Morrón, education about healthy living habits from a young age is a key factor. But with smartphones now being omnipresent the physiotherapist also said it would be interesting to promote the downloading of applications for mobile devices to encourage physical activity.

“If we say to young people that they cannot use their smartphone, who is going to listen to us? No-one. But today the same mobiles warn us if we spend too much time seated or still and encourage us to take an active break or go for a walk.

“We can do countless things on smartphones – but the most important thing is to balance moving around and controlling these secondary risk factors, such as sedentary behaviour and poor diet, which lead to cardiovascular disease.”

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