I know I’m not alone in my concern for the health of Australians and I’m not the first (by any stretch of the imagination) to report on the seriousness of the issue. However, I believe that right now we are facing a ‘critical’ period that requires our prioritized attention. The combination of a number of factors have led to two thirds of respondents to a recent survey stating that they would re-consider gym memberships due to financial pressures.

On the other hand, at a time of global focus on sporting competition, we have as a nation officially become the heavyweight champion of the world! Unfortunately this is not a title we want to have. Figures from a recent study released by the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, report that 26 per cent of adult Australians are now obese, one million more than the last calculation in 1999! The findings give Australia a Gold Medal as the world’s fattest nation, ahead of the notoriously super-sized Americans, who have a 25 per cent obesity rate.

Based on these shocking new statistics, Access Economics has recalculated the costs of the burden of obesity on our nation. Their report, released at a government forum in Tasmania in August, shows the full cost to be $58 billion, far exceeding the $21 billion bill estimated in 2006. The direct costs are estimated at $8.3 billion, with a further $49.9 billion attributable to the value of lost wellbeing and premature death.

In the face of such news, can we afford to stand with arms crossed while people ‘reconsider’ the importance and value of their health? Should we as a nation re-evaluate what is most important to us? Should we achieve national pride from winning the greatest number of medals per head of population, as we tend to do, or from having a healthy and vibrant population?

Can we make a difference? I believe so! But as the health and economical environment changes, it is critical that the decisions we make change as well. ‘Fitness’ is unfortunately becoming a discretional item. As budgets tighten, gym memberships and personal training sessions are one of the first things to go. It is imperative that the message we give our community at large is one that extends past ‘just’ fitness and highlights the impact of their daily behaviours, such as their nutrition and physical activity, on health.

Dr Gary Deed, national president of Diabetes Australia, which commissioned the Access Economics report, said that the obesity epidemic was having a “direct and catastrophic influence on increasing the incidence of type-two diabetes. We know that obesity and type-two diabetes can be prevented and we need to make fundamental changes in the way we live to arrest the escalating crisis”. The report estimates that 242,000 Australians have type-two diabetes as a direct result of their obesity, a further 650,000 Australians can blame their cardiovascular disease on their weight, and more than 30,000 have colorectal, breast, uterine or kidney cancer as a result of their physique.

So we now face a critical time to make decisions with far reaching implications. It was not long after our Olympic Athletes had touched Australian soil after their great achievements in Beijing, discussions started about increasing funding to Olympic programs in preparation for the London Games. I am personally involved in the development of athletes, including current medalists at Beijing.

I think this is an issue of motivations and priorities. We have for a long time justified the millions of dollars spent per Olympic Medal won based on what’s known as ‘the trickle-down effect’. This speculates that success on the world stage will flow on and increase sports and physical activity participation at a grass roots level, a theory that unfortunately has not proved to be correct.

Our challenge then, lies in deciding what to do with our tax dollars already tagged for ‘sports’ and ‘health’. Will we continue to pump them into an international ‘pride’ building contest or strategically allocate them to help reduce our rapidly increasing rates of obesity and related diseases?

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