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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Australia's growing obesity problem

By Dominic Hughes
BBC correspondent in Sydney

On a winter afternoon in Sydney, the enthusiastic under-9s of the Clovelly Crocodiles rugby league team are practising their skills.

It seems an image typical of this sports loving nation, and the proud fathers watching their sons being put through their paces think it is only natural that their kids want to kick a ball around.

Girl on Bondi beach
Childhood obesity can signal problems in later life
"He loves to play, so we're happy to do it," one man at the sidelines said.

Another added: "It's just what you do. You get out and play football in the winter, and cricket in the summer, and also a fair bit of junior lifesaving."

But team coach Lindsay Cotterill has noticed a change.

He has been involved in teaching sport to children for nearly 30 years, and he says it is getting increasingly difficult to find kids who are willing to play.

"I think the whole of society has changed in terms of their outlook," he said. "Parents are too busy working and racing off to jobs."

"The kids themselves, I think have got a little bit more apathetic," he said.

"They can sit on their bum and just watch television and play video games and PlayStation 2, whereas coming to a park and doing some exercise is a bit of a tough option."

Health risks

The difficulty in persuading young boys and girls to play active sports is having an effect on their health.

Australian children are becoming dangerously overweight.

In some areas, up to one in four are overweight or obese - among the highest rate in the world.

The government has even set up a National Obesity Taskforce.

Louise Baur, a paediatrician at Sydney's Westmead Children's hospital, has recently prepared a report for the World Health Organisation on childhood obesity.

She says that in Australia, the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.

It really is quite a medical time bomb
Jenny O'Dea, Sydney University nutritionist

"I think it is one of the major public health problems in Australia," she said.

"Over the 10 year period from 1985 to 1995, the rate of obese children more than tripled and the number of overweight children almost doubled," she said.

The rise in obesity has been linked to changes in diet and leisure patterns, and even the increased use of cars.

While obese children already face health and social problems, there will also be a further price to pay, according to Jenny O'Dea, a nutritionist at Sydney University.

"We see many physical outcomes, but we also see economic costs for many decades to come," she said.

"These children are very unlikely to lose weight. Something like 80% of overweight children become overweight adults, so I think it really is quite a medical time bomb... just waiting to happen."

The boys of the Clovelly Crocodiles may be active and healthy, but many children are not.

Other western nations, even some developing countries, are also seeing an increase in childhood obesity.

Many children now risk a lifetime of illness as a result.


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