While obesity has not necessarily had an impact on me personally, I have seen obesity in my community and the impact it has had. People have difficulties with mobility and have to use wheelchairs or similar devices to get around. Having to have ramps to get into certain businesses or upstairs is not a big deal, but what would such people do in the case of fires in buildings? They won’t be able to use elevators or the stairs. How will firefighters get them safely out of a burning building? Being obese puts their safety at risk, quite apart from the health risks. But the health risks also increase the mortality of these individuals, meaning they could leave behind young children who may become orphans, filling up the already overburdened foster system. It is also clear that such individuals cannot work. They may be able to get disability support, but that might not be enough to support themselves and their families. So, while it is easy for some people to say, “Obese people are only hurting themselves,” that is not the reality of the situation. Obesity impacts other people in their lives.
A factor which contributes to obesity in both children and adults is inactivity. People don’t get enough physical activity like exercise to counter the calories they consume. There are at least two preventive measures that people can take to reduce their likelihood of becoming obese. The first one is to become physically active. This can be as simple as taking a daily walk around one’s neighborhood or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It can be more involved as well, such as joining a gym and getting a personal trainer or taking exercise classes weekly. Increasing one’s activity helps burn calories. The second measure a person can take is to reduce their calorie intake. It’s about balance; if a person is taking in a lot of calories, they need to be more physically active to counter the effects of those calories. If they aren’t going to engage in physical activity, they need to reduce the number of calories they’re taking in.
One particular sociological theory that may be applied to obesity and its relationship to physical inactivity/activity is rational choice theory. Rational choice theory has both social and economic applications. Rational choice theory primarily refers to the process a person goes through to identify and assess their choices before making their decision. It is related to utilitarianism, which suggests that choices which are made should be based on their utility – their ability to serve the needs of the people (or other sentient beings). This theory assumes that the individuals making the decisions are acting rationally and understand alternative choices, have an understanding of the consequences of alternatives, the ability to order preferences over outcomes, and a standard criterion used to assess the options.
How does this relate to obesity and physical inactivity/activity? Well, rational choice theory/utilitarianism suggests that rational actors understand their choices in the context of the alternatives, understand the consequences of their choices, are able to give priority to preferences (rather than outcomes), and a decision rule, which they use to guide their choices. All of this is done at the individual level and assumes that the choice being made serves the needs of the choice maker (and potentially others). In the case of people with obesity, they make the decision to take in more calories than they burn, though they know that consuming more calories than they need contributes to weight gain (the choice in the context of alternatives). They understand that being physically inactive means they aren’t burning as many calories as they need to, though reducing their intake would help (the consequence of their choice and the consequence of an alternative. Yet they prefer to take in more calories, though they know the consequence (preference over outcome). They have a decision rule – in this case, it could be any number of things: they like the taste of certain ‘bad’ foods, they dislike exercise, eating makes them happy, or they emotionally eat.