Australia: Fatter and Lazier

Last Updated Oct 25, 2010 3:14 AM EDT

You can blame pizza, hamburgers and fast food advertising for a fatter population, but the fact is, we're exercising less. The business world is paying for it with lower productivity and higher absenteeism.
Someone once said to me --- on BTalk actually --- that once you're over 40, you're either fit or fat. It's a business issue because the fatter you are the less energy you have and you'll be less productive or less capable of clear thought. One Canadian study found, even back in the '80s when we were all slimmer, employees who took part in a corporate fitness program increased productivity, became less prone to absenteeism and stuck around longer.

Despite the benefits to our health and our work, by our own admission more of us are doing less than one hour's exercise a week --- virtually nothing. 35.2 percent of all Aussies fell into that camp in 2008, up from 31.6 in 2001. Admittedly the figure was way higher back in 1990 (37.5 percent), which means we've transferred some guilt into action, but only to participate in low levels of exercise. Does going to the fridge for a beer count?


A more meaningful measure is how many of us took part in moderate and high exercise. Back in 1990, 33.5 percent of men did. This peaked at 35 percent in 2001 and slipped to a low of 31.8 percent in 2008. Meanwhile obesity amongst men rose from 18.6 percent in 1995 to 25.6 percent in 2008. That's quite a rise! For men in Australia, once you're over 25 being a normal weight places you in the minority. For men aged 55-64 obesity rose from 25.6 percent to 35 percent between 1995 and 2008.

It's a similar tale for women; involvement in moderate to heavy exercise rose from 25.5 percent in 1990, to a high of 26.3 percent in 2001, then down to 23.9 percent in 2008. Meanwhile obesity increased from 18.9 percent of women in 1995 to 24 percent in 2008.

The argument of not having the time to exercise doesn't seem to hold much water. In 2006 (latest data available, sorry) 72 percent of employed people did some form of physical recreation compared to 66.1 percent of unemployed people. That means statistically, if you're out of work, doing more exercise will increase your chance of landing a job. I know that's false logic, but you also know in many cases it's probably true.

There's only one saving grace for Australia in all this --- however fat Australians are getting, the Americans are bigger still. Thirty percent of Aussie males aged 45-54 had a body mass index of 30 of more in 2008. By 2006 (the latest data from the WHO) that figure in the US was already up to 35 percent. They're trailblazing obesity over there.

Why this sudden interest in the health of the nation? Well, as a forty-something male I'm doing my bit to fight the statistics. I've just enrolled in an intensive program of Bikram. Admittedly I'm the fattest person in the room, but hopefully that'll change after a daily visit over the next few weeks. Remember that over-forty rule --- fat or fit. Take your pick.

Data sources:

  • Sport and Recreation: A statistical overview (ABS 4156.0)
  • World Health Organisation Global Infobase
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