Researchers from the Centre of Public Health (CeFAM) and the Department of Environmental Medicine (IMM) at Karolinska Institutet (KI) have now uncovered the relationship between what is known as the ‘metabolic syndrome’ and lifestyle – an area that they feel does not receive sufficient scientific attention. The metabolic syndrome is a strong risk factor in the development of cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes. Common symptoms are high blood-pressure, high blood fat levels, insulin resistance and obesity. The health risks are particularly serious for people with an overly large waist measurement.

The present study was conducted on 4,228 randomly selected 60-year old Swedes, of whom 70 per cent of the men and 60 per cent of the women were overweight. Half of the population had dangerous abdominal obesity (abdominal fat being the invisible fat that surrounds the inner organs and that gives that stomach its roundness and height).

“It’s worrying, since excess fat in the gut area is much more damaging for the heart than a few extra pounds on your bottom, thighs and hips,” says Mai-Lis Hellénius, Professor of Public Medicine and the leader of the study. “Each centimetre increase in waist-measurement increases the risk of heart disease.”

“The fat from abdominal cells is more active,” she continues. “It enters the blood system where it has an adverse effect on the blood vessels, the liver, blood fats and blood pressure. Abdominal obesity also retards the metabolism of sugar since the body’s insulin becomes less effective.”

The study shows that the greatest risk factor when it comes to collect fat around the abdomen is without question lifestyle. People with abdominal obesity ate more saturated fats and less fruit and vegetables, and smoked and drank more alcohol than those who had not developed the condition.

But there is hope. The study also shows that the health risks can be dealt with relatively easily. The researchers found that exercise is the best way for the body to rid itself of abdominal fat. People who exercised at least twice a week, for at least half an hour at a time, showed a 75 per cent lower incidence of abdominal obesity than those who exercised moderately or not at all.

“It’s no news that lifestyle’s important, but we didn’t know that physical activity was such a dominant risk factor,” says Dr Mats Halldin, researcher at the IMM. “One good thing for those who want to reduce the heart risks is that abdominal fat is easier to get rid of than fat around, say, the thighs. And even small changes can have a positive effect on the health.”

The team hopes to strike a blow for bringing out the tape measure now and then, which they hope will direct attention towards the dangerous abdominal fat and away from simply trying to burn off the pounds regardless of where on the body they sit. They urge their colleagues around the world to push health-promotion up the agenda and to more actively encourage patients in the danger zone to change their lifestyles.

“We’re standing on solid scientific ground when we claim that it’s possible to prevent and even cure many diseases and complaints by helping people to change their diets, for example, or exercise a little more,” says Dr Halldin.

“The metabolic syndrome: Prevalence and association to leisure-time and work-related physical activity in 60-year-old men and women”
M. Halldin. M. Rosell, U. de Faire, M.-L. Hellénius
Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases Volume 17, Issue 5, June 2007, Pages 349-357

For further information, please contact:

Dr Mats Halldin, IMM
Tel: +46-(0)73-350 9010

Professor Mai-Lis Hellenius, CeFAM
Tel: +46-(0)70439 01 92

Information Officer Daphne Macris, CeFAM
Tel:+46-(0)73-91 45 245

The Centre for Public Health (CeFAM) is a collaboration between Karolinska Institutet and the Stockholm County Council. It is the largest training, development and research centre in public health in Sweden, and one of the largest in Europe. Over 1,700 research and development projects are being conducted in such fields as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and heredity, mental illness, physical activity, gastrointestinal diseases, nursing and health, and life quality in different residential areas. Find out more at