Working Life: The Life Doctor

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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU KNOW the trouble with some public health campaigns? It's what we in the business call "reverse chic". Heroin Screws You Up was the classic example. Posters of a spotty, greasy-haired, semi-conscious, emaciated youth were meant to turn kids off drugs. Trouble was, this turned out to be every teenager's ideal. They too were spotty, greasy-haired and semi-conscious but hey, this guy was THIN.

The BBC is playing safe with the Fighting Fat Fighting Fit campaign, part of its health education remit, which kicked off earlier this month. Ordinary people. Neither over-aspirational (another public health mistake) nor unhealthily cool. For the first time, the BBC is tracking the success of viewers who join its fitness challenge. Their progress will be monitored over a six-month period. About 198,000 have called in so far.

It seems that we want to be healthier but need to be constantly reminded, encouraged and cajoled to counteract the huge daily bombardment of messages telling us to be unhealthy. What makes public health messages work? A study at Glasgow University showed that sticking a poster at the bottom of an escalator suggesting people walk up was a great success - until the poster came down, when people just stood there again.

The national message is the same as your personal one: kind, repetitive, not overambitious. If we all try a little bit, together we might just make some permanent improvements.

Body Spies (weekdays, 2.55pm, BBC1) started this week and continues for 20 days. Each day, two sets of people with different lifestyle disasters are given a kindly talking-to by an expert. Then they are set a four-week challenge. A partner or friend is left with a camcorder to be the "spy" and check up on them. It is a health programme with several spoons of sugar, and it's voyeuristically compelling.

Lessons have clearly been learned. No teenager would inadvertently admire the life of Keith from Sunderland. Looking like a poor man's Rick Parfitt, he is a car fitter by day, a rock singer by evening and a person who can fall asleep only in front of the TV at 3am because of his caffeine addiction. He is cutting down to five cups of caffeine a day and learning to deep breathe under the tuition of an acupuncturist. In tomorrow's programme, Janice is stopping smoking, and whopper coppers PCs Sharron Edwards and Patrick Pepper are trying to shun kebabs, burgers and the late-night garage on their night shift.

The programme is definitely "on-message" for the Government's drive to get us all to take little steps. Terry and Larry, the Newcastle sports centre managers, are encouraged to walk (nearly a mile) to the pub and, once there, to down four pints rather than eight.

"Six out of 10 men and seven out of 10 women are not active enough to benefit their health," said a Health Education Authority spokesperson. "We want to convince people of the benefits to them now, and in the future, of becoming healthier. And also that it's never too late and you don't have to become a fitness fanatic. To do that we have to get into the psyche of the general population."

Which means Keith and his coffee and PC Pepper and his chocolate stash. At the end of the month, participants feel better and might have lost a bit of weight. But there are no miracle transformations. Those who try get a dressing down. Terry gets forced to confess how unwell he felt after crash dieting during the month just to better Larry's inch loss.

This is the reality of the British way of living? Blokes with dodgy haircuts slumped in front of the telly at 3am? It ain't glamorous but it's how we are. As Margaret Cook said of husband Robin and his brandy bottle habits (I paraphrase): "I didn't realise it would cause such a stir, because who hasn't been semi-conscious under the table?" Well, exactly.

Tape Body Spies. It's cult viewing.