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Walk for the dole? We must find new ways to tackle those corona kilos

On the “calories out” side of the weight equation, we shut all the gyms, told people to work from home and to avoid all non-essential travel.

On the “calories in” side, it’s less clear-cut. There have been fewer opportunities to overindulge at restaurants. But UberEats is but a few clicks away.

Illustration: Dionne Gain

Illustration: Dionne GainCredit:

According to IBIS World figures, the lockdown-inspired boom in home-based cooking boosted supermarket revenues by 4.6 per cent last financial year, while restaurant revenue fell 25 per cent.

Sales of sugary beverages, too, have fallen during lockdown, thanks to fewer trips to the pub. But sales of alcohol consumed at home have soared.

And along with the bottle, studies have shown anxious people are more likely to reach for sugary, salty or fatty foods.

According to the CSIRO, 34 per cent of Australians say they have increased snacking during the crisis, while 41 per cent say they are exercising less. Overall, two in five say they have gained weight.

We shut all the gyms, told people to work from home and to avoid all non-essential travel.

We shut all the gyms, told people to work from home and to avoid all non-essential travel.

IBIS World now expects the percentage of Australians classified as overweight or obese to burst through 70 per cent this financial year, climbing to 75 per cent by 2024-25. Obesity rates were on the rise before coronavirus, of course. But expanding waistlines take on a new and dangerous twist today.

According to a study of the health records of 17 million British adults, overweight and obese adults are at a significantly heightened risk of suffering a coronavirus-related hospital death. The reasons for this are not exactly clear yet, but speculated causes include more difficulty ventilating patients and reduced lung capacity.

In a bid to beat the bulge, Boris Johnson’s new health package contains a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm, a ban on “buy one get one free” sales of such foods and a ban on supermarkets selling these foods at checkout counters.

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Mandatory calorie labelling will be introduced to help guide consumer choices at restaurants and takeaway chains employing more than 250 people.

Critically, consultation will begin on whether alcohol labels should contain calorie counts – a typical bottle of wine containing around 600 calories.

Doctors will also get incentives to ensure they support obese patients to lose weight and GPs will be encouraged to prescribe exercise, such as cycling, to get fit.

“Boris Johnson orders obese people to get on their bikes and lose weight,” The Daily Mail summarised.

It certainly is an about-face for the bombastic PM, who has previously shied away from such “nanny state” measures.

But Boris has changed his mind, and it’s time our policy-makers did too.

Unfortunately, like most things in life, attitudes to weight loss and the appropriate role of government intervention are typically divided along ideological lines.

Libertarians believe it is a matter of personal responsibility for people to manage their weight.

Those of a more interventionist mindset favour government measures aimed at altering the “obesogenic” world we live in, such as taxing unhealthy foods or drinks, banning advertising or introducing incentives to encourage healthy behaviours.

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It’s true that, ultimately, only individuals can decide their behaviours. But it is a key insight of economics that the incentives – particularly financial incentives – people face when making such decisions matter greatly, particularly for people on low incomes.

It’s got me thinking.

As our government looks to wind back its special coronavirus supplement for people on JobSeeker, I say keep it but make some portion dependent on a willingness to commit to healthier behaviours.

I’m calling it “Walk for the Dole”. Stick with me.

There has been an explosion recently in wearable technologies to track health outcomes. The simplest is a pedometer or the steps trackers in an iPhone. Jobless people are particularly vulnerable to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, particularly the longer they are jobless. Why not deliver them a pedometer and incentivise them to walk a certain number of steps a day − say 10,000 − while checking in weekly with a mental and physical health support worker. We could have a boom in healthcare jobs while we’re at it.

Seem far-fetched? Seems to make as much sense to me as forcing JobSeekers to pound the pavement looking for jobs at a time when there are 1 million unemployed Australians – and rising − and only 130,000 job vacancies.

Of course, we could all benefit from getting our steps up. It won’t undo all the doughnuts, but it’s a start.

Johnson says he has started doing gentle running each morning in an attempt to shift the pounds, and estimates he has shed about a stone (about six kilograms) since his hospitalisation.

I intend to lose my Corona Five the only way I know how, by meticulously tracking my calories consumed in food and expended through exercise, and ensuring I accumulate a sufficient energy deficit to force my body to dig into my fat stores for energy.

The fight against the coronavirus has many fronts. Ensuring we all stay fit and healthy enough to beat the infection, should we get it, needs to be part of our national plan.

You can follow Jess’s weight loss journey on Instagram at @jess_irvine_pics

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