Tipping the scales in the global battle of the bulge

Tipping the scales in the global battle of the bulge

Private sector opportunities to promote healthy living are evolving at a rapid pace, demanding a complete break from old roles.

  • min read


Tipping the scales in the global battle of the bulge

This article originally appeared in

Not long ago, healthy living was the domain of fitness fanatics. Today, it’s a mainstream topic, in everyday conversation as well as in the media. What may be more surprising is the similarity of those conversations in many parts of the world.

When Bain & Company recently surveyed 1,200 adults in New York City, Munich and New Delhi, we found some striking consistencies in both the importance people place on living healthier lifestyles and the challenges they face in making that happen. When asked to choose between easy, affordable access to world-class medical care or easy, affordable access to healthy living options, for instance, more than half of those we surveyed in all three cities opted for healthy living. Eight out of 10 respondents said they understand what healthy living means, and three-quarters indicated that they would like to follow a healthier lifestyle. No matter which city they live in, more than half of respondents said they have similar priorities of engaging in more physical activity, following a healthier diet, getting more sleep and managing stress better.

All good intentions, of course, but what prevents people from following through? Here again, some strong similarities emerged, regardless of demographics or culture. About 80% of respondents indicated that they face at least one major constraint to living a healthier life. While about half of respondents readily admit they don’t meet the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum physical activity level for their age group, the reasons they gave reflect the constraints of a busy workforce—stress, lack of time and the vexing difficulty of changing old habits. Financial constraints are a factor as well. Younger respondents in all three cities cited high stress levels and time constraints two or three times as often as older respondents.

Some of the variations in global attitudes about healthy living are equally striking. For instance, our research suggests that emerging markets may present opportunities to leapfrog traditional approaches and implement new models of prevention and care, using new technologies. The younger and more educated New Delhi cohort reported that they frequently read about health issues and look for information online. Nearly two-thirds said they read articles about healthy living at least once a week, compared with 29% in Munich and 42% in New York. The New Delhi respondents expected companies to promote healthy lifestyles through games, the Internet and social media. New Delhi respondents were also more likely to say they are concerned about people with unhealthy lifestyles in their city and admit that their own lifestyles put them at risk for developing a chronic disease. Given this self-awareness and commitment to healthy living, what would help the New Delhi respondents achieve their goals? More than twice as many in New Delhi said that governments should pass more regulations to support healthy living, even if it means restricting individual freedom.

While governments and policy makers around the globe are starting to act, perhaps the most powerful insight to emerge from our research is the need for businesses to anticipate market changes and learn to operate in a new environment. Simply put: Healthy living presents enormous opportunities for businesses, inside and outside of the healthcare sector. Consumers are looking for innovative, personalized solutions to help them change their habits. It’s difficult to predict how much money consumers would actually put on the table, but the signs point to an opportunity for companies in many sectors to test out this hypothesis as they develop new healthy products and services.

Private sector opportunities to promote healthy living are evolving at a rapid pace, demanding a complete break from old roles and a new “cross-sector” language of integration that can capture the imagination of consumers. Pharmaceutical and medtech companies, for example, have unique access to hospitals and physicians—among the most trusted providers of information on healthy living, according to 68% of the people we surveyed. That creates opportunities to develop new, innovative approaches to keeping patients healthy, with special focus on secondary prevention as well as new products and services such as nutritional supplements and consumer-friendly diagnostics.

Technologies that simplify healthy choices and help consumers overcome barriers to behavior change will see rapid growth. Hundreds of companies are working on smartphone applications and monitoring or wearable devices linked to healthy living. As that ecosystem grows, look for the emerging leaders to stand out by linking players together and focusing on evidence-based, personalized and time-saving tools.

In consumer products, one emerging opportunity is to strengthen the feedback loop between short-term pleasure and long-term health at the point of purchase. Consumers say they are looking for healthier food and new kinds of exercise equipment and programs, especially for personalized products and services that are priced affordably and offer quick and easy ways to stay healthy.

Now more than ever, we need industries that support and enhance health in an innovative way. As much as we know about behavior change, it remains difficult for individuals to apply that knowledge to promote their own health or maintain their commitment to these activities. Results from the survey show that consumers under­stand what they need to do, but they want a lot more help doing it. Companies that can work across sectors, personalize their products creatively or develop a sustainable market for a product yet to be invented will create enormous value—for their shareholders and for the world.

Norbert Hueltenschmidt leads Bain & Company’s Healthcare practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and is a partner based in Zurich. Tamara Olsen is a Bain partner based in Boston and a member of the firm’s Healthcare practice. Bain is a knowledge partner for the World Economic Forum’s healthy living initiative.


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