Ian Ball is 6ft 4in tall, weighs 18 stone and has smoked since the age of 14. "I'm hopelessly out of nick," says the president of the New South Wales Police Association. "Put it this way: you won't see me running any marathons." Mr Ball, a serving sergeant, is not an exceptional case. According to senior officers, obesity and low standards of fitness are so common in the NSW force that there is a serious risk of public safety being compromised.
The image of the athletic, bronzed Aussie male no longer reflects reality in Australia, where two-thirds of men – and more than half of women – are estimated to be overweight.
Health professionals warn of an epidemic of obesity and say waistlines are swelling at such a swift pace that Australia is on course to overtake America as the world's fattest nation in the next 10 to 15 years. By then, as many as seven in 10 people will be overweight or obese, based on current trends.
The prognosis seems astonishing, given Australia's warm climate, outdoor lifestyle and reputation as a sports-mad nation. But, while Australians love watching sport, they are not so keen to participate. Barely half of adults engage in even moderately strenuous pursuits such as hiking or golf.
Children give particular cause for concern. Today's adolescents are fatter than any previous generation, according to Louise Baur, an associate professor at Sydney University's paediatric health department. One recent study found that children spend an average of ten minutes a day doing vigorous physical activity.
The rate of childhood obesity has tripled in the past decade, with more than one in five children now classified as obese or overweight, according to the National Health and Medical Research Council. Only in the US do children weigh more on average than they do in Australia.
Some anxious parents here have even resorted to hiring personal trainers to sort out their offspring. Ten-year-old Bella Partridge, of Sydney, goes to the gym several times a week with her trainer, at a cost of about £25 an hour.
Poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and rising crime are blamed for the lamentable health of Australia's young.
Parents, concerned for their children's safety, ferry them to and from school. Children spend their leisure hours watching television or playing on computers rather than cycling around the neighbourhood. Australia has one of the world's highest rates of home computer ownership and inter-net connection.
Local councils, meanwhile, are removing swings, slides, see-saws and roundabouts from playgrounds out of fear of personal injuries litigation.
"Twenty years ago, children used to walk to school or ride bikes at the weekend," said Dr Michael Booth, senior lecturer at the Centre for the Advancement of Adolescent Health in Sydney. "They don't do that anymore because we have created an environment which is not safe for them."
Obese children have problems with joints, blood pressure and cholesterol. Health professionals have seen children as young as four with fatty deposits in their aortas and some showing signs of heart disease by the age of 10. Teenagers are developing type 2 diabetes, which is usually only seen in adults in their 40s and 50s.
One health problem rec-orded by a paediatrician in North Queensland is a depressing sign of the times. Dr Guan Koh has treated so many youngsters with ulcerated fingers – the result of lengthy sessions playing computer games, that he has coined a new condition: Nintendonitis.Reuse content