Last chance saloon to fight against the fat tide

How can we stop our nation of couch potatoes from eating itself to death?

We live in a time of virtuous role models in almost every sport, yet participation levels still falling, particularly among our children. What are the costs of our growing indolence? And if recent Olympic success on a previously undreamt-of scale is not enough to inspire us to stay in shape, what else might work?

These are not abstract issues. We are now so unhealthy that, according to a  Scottish Parliament briefing, our expanding waistlines are costing Scotland’s NHS up to £4.6bn a year, or 3% of GDP.

Even more worryingly, the briefing added that the obesity epidemic is putting a ‘significant and growing’ burden on the nation’s finances. A report by Food Standards Scotland revealed that 500,000 Scots are at high risk of developing diabetes – which costs the UK economy £10bn each year – and that this number grows every year. Obesity now kills more Scots, especially poor ones, than tobacco. And it causes 30% of cancers.

Since 1995 the proportion of overweight Scots has risen from 52% to 65%, with 28% now categorised as obese. Yet, incredibly, 75% of Scots believe their diet is healthy. Instead, Scotland is the world’s second most obese country behind the USA.

As Professor Graham MacGregor, the prominent cardiovascular expert and anti-sugar campaigner, said: This is a huge crisis: we are the most obese nation in Europe; it’s going to bankrupt the NHS.’

Despite the rhetoric from Holyrood, the resources devoted to counteracting this tsunami of blubber are pathetically insufficient, with the Scottish Government committing just £10 million to projects which encourage healthy eating between 2010-16.

While money is not the panacea and most of the necessary change is cultural, resources still need to be in place and employed effectively.

Audit Scotland’s blunt assessment when it looked at this area was that ‘not enough people are taking part in sport and the quality of sports facilities need to improve’.

Currently 90% of the £558m spent annually on the provision of sports facilities and services is spent by councils, but Audit Scotland says the system is ‘fragmented with no clear links between the Scottish Government’s national strategy for sport and councils’ investment of money’.

Government intervention can change cultures, as proved by the ‘Cycle to work’ salary sacrifice scheme which has seen 400,000 start cycling to work since 1999 thanks to tax breaks offered by Government.

Based on the approach of Finland, Canada and New Zealand – the only three countries to reverse the trend towards sedentary ill-health – authorities such as the World Health Organisation say that the only way to get a nation of couch potatoes fit for purpose is to kick-start projects and attack the problem from different angles.

So, as many areas of life are, or soon will be, devolved to Holyrood, here are ten simple ideas on how to begin to change the national approach to food and exercise, with a focus on children. Any one of these could help ensure that less of us die prematurely and that our NHS isn’t bankrupted. Makes you think…

1. Teach our kids to cook: A MORI poll found that just 27% of working-age people cook for themselves, going down to 17% in the most deprived areas. Many parents now simply don’t know how to cook so can’t teach their kids. Home economics should start in junior school and be a compulsory exam subject up to National 5 or GCSE.

2. School lunches: Ban children from leaving school premises at lunchtime, leaving them more time to play and removing a key opportunity to consume junk food. We should provide school lunches that are healthy (ie: contain no processed food and as little salt and sugar as possible) and affordable. School dinners cost an average of £10 per week (£130 per month for a family with three children); we should consider scrapping child benefit and diverting the money to free school meals, as in France where pupils eat a restaurant-quality four-course lunch alongside their teachers.

3. Be more inventive in schools sports provision: In New Zealand, every child has a compulsory afternoon each week when they must play sport, but the sports are not confined to team games like rugby or football. Children get to try many sports and if they settle on golf, dance, yoga or spin classes (all sports they can keep up after they leave school) then they can pursue that interest. It may cost money, but the long-term saving to the NHS easily outstrips the outlay.

4. The Daily Mile: When Elaine Wyllie, the headmistress of St Ninians primary school, in a bluecollar area of Stirling, first made it compulsory for her pupils to walk or run a mile a day, she had a normal cohort of children (on average 1 in 3 primary school children is overweight and 1 in 10 is obese). Three years later St Ninians had no overweight children and levels of concentration and academic achievement were notably higher. So let’s make the daily mile compulsory at all primary and secondary schools.

5. Make all sports facilities, including gyms, tax-exempt: The Cycle to Work scheme shows that tax policy can boost participation levels, so let’s make gym membership subject to salary sacrifice and boost levels of participation. Also, give tax breaks and speed up planning to build five-a-side pitches so that the thousands of overweight middle-aged men in the Central Belt who want to play football but can’t find pitches at sensible times can become more active.

6. Annual prediabetes screening for employees to be tax deductible: Nearly one in three Scots has prediabetes, which means their blood glucose (sugar) level indicates they are on the road to type 2 diabetes and are already at increased risk of a stroke and heart disease. Prediabetes is reversible if diagnosed, and that diagnosis is often the kick needed to change behaviour and avoid full-blown type 2 diabetes. It is cheap and easy to check for prediabetes: companies should be incentivised to get employees checked and it should be compulsory for public sector employees.

7. Tough love from doctors: In Finland and through New Zealand’s Movement Prescription Project, overweight patients whose ailments would benefit from a less sedentary lifestyle can be prescribed a compulsory exercise regime aimed at making them fit for work, which includes free gym or pool time if necessary (it’s backed up by removing benefits and/or conventional medical treatment if they refuse). This initiative increased patient activity significantly, especially among older patients who became on average five times more active.

8. Ban the placement of chocolates and sugary treats at supermarket checkouts: Needs no explanation.

9. Show Westminster how it’s done: The UK government stepped back from a sugar tax and banning junk food advertising, Holyrood should pick up that baton.

10. Standing desks: Everyone using a standing desk burns off 3.3 calories a minute, so if you stand for half your eight-hour day you will burn off an extra 650 calories, equivalent to a 10km run each week or 11 marathons a year. ‘Transitional’ desks that allow you to stand or sit cost slightly more than conventional desks, so companies should be incentivised to use them, while public sector workers should be required to.

(This feature was originally published in 2016)