Can the games solve Canada’s weight problem?

By Eric Mathison

The Olympics has a bad reputation. With its nationalism, its history of human rights being sidelined wherever it goes — Vancouver included — and the incredible amount of money spent, thinking the entire thing is unjustified is a defensible position. In spite of these problems, there is one upside to the Olympics that is often overlooked: it gets people excited about sports in a positive way.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2004 11.3 million people aged 20 to 64 were either overweight or obese in Canada. The World Health Organization estimates that there are over 1 billion overweight people in the world. These are astounding figures, and they illustrate just how out of control the weight epidemic has become. The connection between obesity and health issues is, of course, not new, but that makes it all the more surprising that so little has been done to address the issue. Obesity is almost completely controllable; while genetics play a role, lifestyle choices like diet and activity level are the most important factors in determining whether one is overweight or not. Because of that, the Olympics are a good investment opportunity.

Why invest, though? What’s in it for us? $9.6 billion. At least that’s the amount estimated by a 2001 study of obesity’s cost to Canadians. It can probably be rounded off to $10 billion now, although that figure may be quite a bit higher nearly a decade on. That amount combines both the direct and indirect costs of obesity as well as the direct and indirect costs of physical inactivity, which are both concerns for the task at hand. In a country with public health care everyone hurts from the lifestyle choices of some. So, just like I can’t ride a motorcycle without a helmet or play Russian roulette with my friends, society has a similar interest in making sure people look after themselves. Not, mind you, by making obesity illegal; there are better options. (Note: these so-called “victimless crimes” would, however, hurt no one who didn’t consent to the harm if public health care was abolished.)

It’s not so simple. To really let this social libertarian dream fly insurance programs would have to be abolished too. An article in the January 21 edition of The Economist cites a study estimating that obese Americans have medical bills that are 42 per cent higher than non-obese Americans. Another study quoted predicts that by 2030 health care costs due to obesity will total US $1 trillion. Health care is worth keeping around, but perhaps not in its present guise. Regardless, the weight problem affects everyone enough that something needs to be done about it.

To be sure, the solution will be a long time coming. But it seems like so little can go a long way, starting in the schools. Allotting enough time for physical education programs, so children can get the one hour of recommended physical activity a day needed, is a must. The majority of children in Canada aren’t getting that one hour in; less than 30 per cent of high school students are.

Scaring people into exercise is less likely to work, so why not try inspiring them? For all its faults, the Olympics is a chance to see the best athletes in sports the public doesn’t normally watch. And this has a certain charm. Sports clubs consistently report higher registration following major events like the Olympics, so it seems like it might be good for something after all.

The good things about sport are embodied by most of the athletes at the Olympics. Few of them get paid a significant amount of money, save hockey players, and they all show the value of commitment to a passion. Advertising and nationalism can whittle that value away, but it can’t make it disappear.

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