Being unfit and obese as a teenager may increase disability risk later in life

Being obese as a teenager could increase the risk of being disabled in adulthood, according to new research.

New European research has found that a low level of physical fitness, obesity, and a combination of the two during adolescence could increase the risk of chronic disease and disability in adulthood.

Led by researchers from the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, and the University of Granada, Spain, the new study is the largest of its kind to date, looking at 1,079,128 Swedish male teenagers aged 16 to 19 and following them for a median of 28.3 years.

Measurements were taken of the participants’ cardiorespiratory fitness and body mass index (BMI), and disability was assessed later on in the study using receipts of a disability pension, which in many countries are given to those who are likely to never work full-time again because of a chronic disease or injury diagnosed by a physician.

The findings, published online in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, showed that when comparing participants with the lowest level of fitness to those with the highest, low cardiorespiratory fitness was strongly associated with receiving a disability pension later in life due to all causes and specific causes, such as psychiatric, musculoskeletal, nervous system and circulatory issues as well as problems, injuries and tumours.

Obesity was also associated with a higher risk of receiving a disability pension due to all and specific causes. Those with class II obesity, which is a BMI of 35 to 39.9, and class III obesity, a BMI equal to or greater than 40, had an even greater risk.

However, compared to being unfit, being moderately or highly fit appeared to lower the risk of receiving a disability pension regardless of BMI.

The researchers note that the study did have its limitations, as it did not include women and data on smoking and alcohol intake was taken from just a subsample of the participants, and they add that more research is needed.

However, they concluded that the findings support the importance of high cardiorespiratory fitness and healthy body weight during adolescence to prevent chronic disease and disability later in life.