Walking in Belgium

Leuven Travel Blog

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Female obesity and economic inequality across western countries
After my last post, in wondering about why obesity in Belgium was so much lower than in America, despite more time spent eating and greater consumption of chocolate, my epidemiologist wife pointed me towards these two papers:

"Wider income gaps, wider waistbands? An ecological study of obesity and income inequality". Pickett et al, Journal of Epidemiological Community Health 2005.
"Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia". Bassett et al, Journal of Physical Activity and Health 2008

The first paper makes the point that social inequality is an excellent predictor of, and contributor to, public health. Those countries with lower levels of income disparity between the poorest and the most wealthy are also healthier and thinner countries (a nice graph is attached).

The second paper measures physical activity as a proportion of trips taken by the average citizen. In the US, 88% of trips are taken by car, 2% by public transport, 1% by bike and 9% by walking. In Australia, 86% of trips are taken by car, 8% by public transport, 1% by bike and 5% by walking. In Belgium, 70% of trips are taken by car, 6% by public transport, 8% by bike and 16% by walking (and Belgium is one of the poor performers in western Europe!). 

What really matters though is distance and calories - Americans cycle 40km and walk 141km per year, Australians cycle 136km and walk 419km per year and Belgians cycle 322km and walk 380km per year. That really puts things into perspective - even with the extra chocolate, Belgians are skinnier than Americans because they walk/cycle more than 700km per year (burning 62 Calories per day) compared to 180km per year (burning just 20 Calories per day)! When you eat twice as much chocolate but exercise four times as much you stay skinnier...
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Here are three interesting statistics I came across this weekend:

Average time spent eating
America - 75 minutes per day
Australia - 90 minutes per day
Belgium - 110 minutes per day

Amount of chocolate eaten
America - 5.45kg/year
Australia - 5.72kg/year
Belgium 8.92kg/year

Amount of obesity
America - 30.6%
Australia - 21.7%
Belgium - 11.7%

Strange, isn't it? Belgians spend more time eating and consume more chocolate than Americans, and yet their obesity rate is far lower (with Australia in between on each metric). It is interesting to think about which aspects of Belgian life are so healthy and which aspects of American life are unhealthy. The latter are easier for me to recognise, after living in Seattle for three years - the high fructose corn syrup in everything has to negate lower chocolate consumption, and the urban design in America promotes non-stop car use rather than walking. I wonder what is so healthy about living in Belgium though, and whether I will get any benefit :)
Adrian_Liston says:
I'm not sure about Antwerp, Canberra copes a lot of flak for only being a country town, with its 350,000 people. But yeah, Australia is really orientated towards it big cities, with a population of 20 million there are 5 million in Sydney, 3 million in Melbourne, 2 million in Brisbane and Perth and Adelaide both have over a million.
Posted on: May 11, 2009
lamadude says:
On a side-note I think Flemish people are afraid of cities, over six million people in Flanders and the 3rd biggest city is Bruges... I mean, Bruges is tiny! (and the 4th biggest is.... Leuven, not exactly a sprawling metropolis either)
If you take the 5 biggest cities in Flanders you have less than a million people (987,000 according to my calculations) or less than 20% of the total population.
In australia more than half the population of the country lives in one of the 5 biggest cities. (12,7 million according to my (rough) calculations)
French speaking Belgium seems slightly less afraid of cities. With only 4 million people they have Brussels and Li├Ęge.

Ok enough numbers for today!
Posted on: May 11, 2009
lamadude says:
I don't think it really matters since the aggricultural sector only accounts for 1% of the population, both in the US as in Belgium (4% in Australia) So those farmers would have to be pretty freakin' overweight to really affect the general statistics.

I think European farmers are slightly closer to traditional farming methods than their American collegues, but it's probably pretty close. The size of the farms is smaller in Europe, because there simply is less land, but the average farm is already a lot bigger than 10 or 20 years ago and most farmers are more "farm managers" with machines doing most of the work.
Posted on: May 11, 2009
Female obesity and economic inequa…
Female obesity and economic inequ…
photo by: Chokk