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How a Finnish town defeated obesity

The world is fat! For quite some time now, headlines such as this have been circulating in the media, summarizing a phenomenon that has been intensively investigated in recent years. Since the second half of the 20th century, the average weight of the population has risen steadily in most countries. Being overweight or obese is a reflection of our modern lifestyle. It greatly increases the risk of a variety of diseases and has considerable costs. In many countries around the world, between 50% to 75% of adults are overweight or obese. But also the number of overweight children and adolescents is rising rapidly. As a result, they are affected more and more by diseases commonly associated with elderly people such as diabetes mellitus type 2, arterial hypertension, joint pain etc.

Especially in Northern Europe, the fight against obesity has been quite successful. The measures taken by the Finnish city Seinäjoki, for example, managed to reduce the number of overweight children and adolescents by half over the last few years. The developers of the program "Lihavuus Laskuun" (Reducing Overweight) made use of a combination of measures to promote a healthy diet and more exercise in schools, nurseries and everyday life. As a first step, the menus in schools and nurseries were adjusted by reducing the salt and fat content of meals. To further promote the program, the developers also included a network of mother-child counseling centers. These institutions are free of charge and advise many Finnish families on questions ranging from pregnancy to the choice of nurseries.

In addition to a healthy diet, the developers also considered physical activity as one of the cornerstones of their program. Teachers should motivate their students to move during their lessons and breaks, thus developing a more active lifestyle as a whole. In some cases, unconventional changes were made: some schools replaced the standard school desks with high desks and added balance-boards for the students to stand on. Some also placed sports equipment in their classrooms.

Exercising and moving in the classroom is encouraged and is actively integrated into the children's daily routines at school. As a positive side effect of these measures, both the children's weight went down and their concentration during lessons also improved. Thanks to its success, the program has been extended to 2020, to keep up the good results and further reduce the percentage of obese children. Seinäjoki's approach proves that targeted prevention is an effective method to fighting obesity in children. If done consistently, these changes can improve quality of life and reduce health risks and future health costs. Even if the implementation of this program initially requires a higher investment, the preventive measures are much more cost-efficient than the treatment of the following complications and associated diseases.

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