If you want to fight obesity, get moving

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday 1 July 2004
By Gregory Hywood  

Malcolm Freake says it was his work 30 years ago with the seatbelt safety pioneer Dr Peter Nelson that convinced him the impossible was achievable. In 1974 Freake, then a data processor, now one of Australia's wealthiest men, helped Nelson compile The Pattern of Injury Report, a landmark study that resulted in Victoria becoming the first instrumentality in the world to invoke compulsory seatbelt legislation. Such legislation is now the norm in industrialised nations.

That report cut through a political malaise because it delivered information on the results of not wearing seatbelts that was extraordinary in its depth and detail. To compile this statistical account of devastating road carnage required an absolute commitment from Nelson and his team to break down institutional roadblocks.

Now the understated Freake - having gone to Britain, started Huon Software, sold it for a personal fortune and returned to Australia - is back at the heart of public policy advocacy showing the same level of determination.

His issue of choice is sedentary living. It is in the news now because both major parties are fighting to gain kudos around childhood obesity, finally recognised as a key national health issue. Some estimates have nearly half of Australians overweight. It's not as bad as in the US, where the number approaches two-thirds. But it is enough of a problem for the Federal Government to throw $60 million at it in forthcoming announcements, outbidding Labor's promised $25 million.

But Freake got there long ago. In 2001 he established the Bluearth Institute, devoted to improving health through physical activity. He personally funds it with $2million a year. He has put together an impressive team. Legendary sports medicine specialist Dr Dick Telford is on the board. Nick Green, of the "Oarsome Foursome", is on staff. Ron Barassi, Ian and Greg Chappell are supporters.

Freake and those at Bluearth take a decidedly different view to obesity than the knee-jerk response that puts this blight at the foot of junk food, serving sizes and snacking.

There is little sympathy for Mark Latham's bid to ban fast-food advertising on prime-time television. In fact, Bluearth cites research showing that the calorie intake of children has barely moved in 20 years. What has changed is the level of physical activity. Remote controls, two-car families, the proliferation of visual entertainment, the focus of schools on academic achievement and all the time-saving devices we use have created a more sedentary world where there is less burning of calories.

In an 85-page report analysing the latest research on obesity and related diseases, entitled Physical Activity, Health and the Quality of Life, Telford cites evidence that children's annual physical activity has fallen 650 kilocalories in the past 50 years. This equates to walking to and from school for 20 minutes and physically active playing after school for 30 minutes or more. It's a similar story for adults.

The results, says Telford, is the proliferation of sedentary disease syndrome. The broader outcome of a lack of activity goes beyond obesity and feeds diseases such as diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular problems.

Telford says human genes are arranged within an environment of physical activity. "Now this has dramatically reduced, faults in our human design are emerging."

"When we don't use our energy output systems in a manner for which they were designed (and our lungs, heart, blood, blood vessels, muscles, nerves, hormones are all involved) then these systems begin to deteriorate."

The Bluearth response to this is a practical one - the development of activity programs, initially aimed at primary-school children, but with an aim over time to include the entire population.

The institute goes into schools to run innovative, non-competitive programs designed to instil in children the benefits not of sport per se, but a life of continuous physical activity. It also trains the class teachers as it goes.

It's a hard slog. Despite the great benefits and outstanding response of participants the response rate of schools is slower than desired . Freake is confronting the same kind of bureaucratic resistance he did 40 years ago.

Nor is the Bluearth approach completely consistent with the Government's political needs. Canberra wants to fund sporting bodies to go into schools - from the AFL to the Australian Cricket Board. It's smart politics. The Government is seen to respond to an important health issue while funding sport at the same time.

The trouble, says Bluearth, is that the issue is much broader than sport. It's about understanding the importance of activity generally. The institute supports the involvement of sports bodies, but believes broader programs are essential to prepare the way if the funding is not to be wasted.

This is the crux of the issue. Obesity, sedentary life, however you describe it, is a major issue of our time. The task for Government is to look beyond the immediate politics to longer-term solutions. Bluearth has thought beyond the obvious and deserves to be heard.