Thursday, September 17, 2009

Obesity crisis gains weight

Blimey I'm posting a lot today. But I read something in yesterday's newspaper which appalled me. Taxpayers could be forced to fund lapband surgery for obese teenagers. Now the appalling bit isn't the bit about the taxpayers (although that's bad enough), it's that there are so many young people out there seriously and dangerously overweight. Apparently one in four children here in Oz are obese or overweight.

It wasn't that long ago that Australia was considered a bit of a paradise, filled with lean, healthy people, outdoorsy types who spread the legend of the Bronzed Aussie throughout the world.

Fighting middle-aged spread is not uncommon throughout the western world on western diets - our metabolism and hormones change the way we store and use fat. But my goodness there are a lot of sadly big children around. It can't all be "just big bones" or "genes". When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s we were all pretty lean. I was slightly chubby compared to my friends but looking at pics of me in my youth I wouldn't have been considered overweight. We used to run around outside all the time, we rode bikes, we flopped into bed tired after busy, active days. We didn't have fast food several times a week as to be honest there wasn't any back then. There were a few pizza shops but KFC and McDonald's didn't appear in Australia until the late 60s/early 70s and even then they were considered a twice a year event in our family. Now there is a scary wealth of fast food options for busy parents to fall back on, or for teens to stop at on the way home from school.

Pre-teen kids these days have a different life. At school, many of them aren't allowed run at lunchtime unless the school has a grassy oval. In my childhood we belted around the concrete playground heedless of skinned knees and other injuries. Nowadays schools are mindful of insurance premiums and parents taking out lawsuits if Little Johnny breaks an arm at school. So kids can't run unless it's during supervised sports.

The careless play my friends and I indulged in after school isn't always an option for today's child either. All the kids in my street would congregate in the bamboo grove at the back of my next door neighbour's. It was a cave, a house, a castle, whatever you wanted to make of it. We'd perhaps go for a bike ride together, or play chasing or some kind of ball game. Our mothers would get a little concerned near dinner time and call us in, or take turns to check periodically we were all still there and in one piece. Today's child often stays in 'after care' until his or her parents get home from work. If Mum doesn't work and picks up the child from school, it's usually in a car, and the child has to stay at home rather than play in the street with friends as parents are justifiably concerned about paedophiles. My mum used to worry about me getting kidnapped, but compared to a lot of today's kids I had amazing freedoms. So today's kid stays at home in front of the telly or computer after school. Many modern suburbs encourage big houses on small blocks so the classic backyard, the home of cricket, footy and everything else, is diminished.

Teenagers don't 'play' like younger kids. There's even more temptation for them to spend their money on junk food after school, and unless they are passionate about their sport, they aren't the most active beings if any of my friends' teens are an example. If both parents work, your average teen will go home from school and either hit the computer or the tv or chat to friends on the phone. There's no-one to tell them to get up and move around. Where I live I see a few teens and younger children being active after school either on bikes or walking, but nowhere near the number I used to see when I was younger. The lure of technology encourages sedentary behaviour. It's all very well to buy a Nintendo Wii and play tennis on it but don't kid yourself you're getting fit - you'd be much better off playing tennis for real.

Our government is currently engaged in a 'measure up' campaign for adults, encouraging them to measure their waistline and do something about bringing their weight down if they are overweight. They are also seriously considering banning fast food / junk food advertisements during children's tv time. Major supermarkets are engaged in advertising to make fruit and vegetables exciting choices for kids to eat (but still have long, full aisles of sugary soft drinks and fatty or sugary snacks). There's a real push to get people out there in the fresh air, exercising - there is a spring family bike ride next week, 45km across Sydney; Ride To Work day next month etc. But is it too little too late for families who take the easy option with pizza and chips and use the car to travel 500 metres?

Is Australia now Paradise Lost?

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