Australia’s top sport is couch sitting

If only there were an Olympic medal for watching sport on tele...

An estimated 2.5 million Australians tuned in to watch this week’s State of Origin game, the highest since television ratings began. But Bureau of Statistics surveys show that the proportion of Australians actually participating in sport or physical recreation fell from 66 per cent to 64 per cent over the five years ended 2009-10, a drop the bureau says is ”statistically significant”.

Indeed, there is a growing gap between the number of Australians who watch sport on television and the number who actually make the leap from couch to park to participate.

And it shows.

As a nation, Australians are getting fat at the fastest rate in the developed world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And yes, that includes the United States.

During the 1990s and 2000s the proportion of Australians who are overweight or obese (56 per cent in 2009 on a self-reported basis, higher on some other measures) overtook Austria (45 per cent), Spain (52 per cent) and Canada (50 per cent). We are, however, still doing better than the English (63 per cent) and Americans (68 per cent).

But we’re on our way. The OECD predicts that by 2019, 64 per cent of Australians will be overweight or obese.

The economic cost of this obesity crisis is measurable not only in direct health costs – obesity leads to all manner of life-threatening illnesses like diabetes and heart disease which require continuing treatment and hospitalisation – but also in lost economic output.

Without victimising people who struggle to maintain a healthy weight, it is statistically true that being obese is associated with lower work participation and wages. It’s hard to work when you’re sick.

So brickbat of the week must surely go to Randwick City Council which has voted to increase the charge for personal trainers using local parks and beaches for group training to between $2 and $6 per session. Randwick is by no means the centre of Australia’s obesity epidemic, which is more prevalent in lower socio-economic areas. But when it comes to exercise, every little bit counts. By lifting the price of exercise, the Randwick move is likely to deter at least some people from exercising. Personal trainers may be up in arms, but ultimately it is bootcampers themselves who will shoulder the extra cost.

According to a 2009 report by Access Economics for the fitness industry, if just 3 per cent of the adult population started using a fitness centre, it could save the public purse a little over $200 million and boost gross domestic product by about $82 million. Conversely, a drop in fitness centre attendance hurts the public purse, due to higher health care costs and forgone income tax revenue.

According to Access: ”Improvements in community health radiate out to the rest of the economy by reducing health care costs, enhancing workforce productivity and increasing the amount of labour available (for example, through lifting the number of people participating in the workforce).”

It is time governments of all levels woke up to our obesity challenge. Far from taxing the very activity we want to encourage, money spent helping people exercise could return a health and economic dividend.

Less watching, more moving.

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One Response to Australia’s top sport is couch sitting

  1. Luke says:

    Very good points Jessica. One thing which governments should be doing much more of is promoting riding a bike as a viable form of transport for ordinary people, not just middle-aged blokes who think they’re riding in “le tour” on their morning commute. Nothing wrong with sports cycling (I have a soft spot for lycra myself), but it will only ever be something 2%-3% of the population will do.

    To really make cycling a normal, everyday reality we need to get rid of the helmet law. Helmet laws discourage cycling in a big way (participation dropped 30%-40% when the laws were enacted in the 90s). The health benefits of riding a bike (without a helmet) outweigh the risks of a traffic accident by a huge margin, something like 20 to 1. It doesn’t make sense to criminalise an activity which is safe and very beneficial for the individual just because it could be made a little bit safer.

    This is the reason why those countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark etc, which have very high rates of cycling don’t have helmet laws. In fact, there are only 2 countries in the world which have compulsory helmets for adults – Australia and New Zealand. We don’t have a better safety record than countries without compulsory helmets.

    Our mandatory helmet laws have not significantly reduced the amount of serious injuries and fatalities (some actually argue they have not reduced injuries at all) – but they have succeeded in putting many people off riding, and creating a totally exaggerated fear of the actual likelihood of getting injured while riding a bike.

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