Maxine Frith: The pointless new Minister for Aerobics

Most fat people know they are fat. They do not need a campaign to inform them of that fact
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The Independent Online

For someone who has just been charged with cheerleading the nation into getting on its collective exercise bike, Caroline Flint sounded rather beleaguered yesterday. The new Minister for Fitness, asked to rate her fellow Cabinet colleagues on whether they were obese and should be more active, refused and sniffed: "I'm certainly not taking on the job of being the chief aerobics instructor for either the Cabinet or for the nation." But that is exactly what she has been tasked with - and why it is such an enormous waste of time and money.

Faced with the deeply worrying evidence that nearly one in three of the population will be obese by 2010, the Government has decided to swing into action. The Department of Health, according to its press release, intends "to transform the population into a fitter and more active nation in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games."

Reading this, images of mandatory public exercise sessions in Korea spring to mind, or visions of Gordon Brown leading the massed ranks of the Treasury department out to Horseguards Parade every morning for a swift bit of tae kwon do in order to beat the Chinese in the medals rankings. People will also be encouraged to make more journeys on foot or by bike than by car, doctors will be told to ask patients about their weight, and at least five government departments will (allegedly) work in partnership to get Britain into tip-top shape.

But will it do any good? The obesity issue isn't like other public health problems, such as smoking. One of the most persuasive arguments for introducing a ban on smoking in public places is the impact that tobacco use has on others. Passive smoking kills thousands of people a year, and employees, particularly pub workers and others in the hospitality trade, are put at serious risk by the actions of others. Government has a right and a duty to interfere in this issue and, at the very least, legislation will protect those who don't smoke from those who do.

Neither is the obesity question like the problem of sexually transmitted infections, where public health campaigns have a role in raising awareness of such diseases among a population where many are ignorant of the causes, symptoms and cures. Fatness, however, is not catching or passively spread. Yes, the children of overweight parents who serve up unhealthy meals at the family dinner table (or perhaps more realistically, at the sofa in front of the telly) are probably going to be more at risk of weight problems than their slimmer counterparts.

But talk of an "epidemic" of obesity wrongly implies this is a "disease" that strikes indiscriminately and without warning. Most fat people know they are fat; they do not need an expensive government information campaign on how to calculate their Body Mass Index or a doctor to inform them of that fact.

And while some of the chronically overweight will bleat on about slow metabolisms and overactive thyroids, most fat people also know they are fat because they eat too much and don't do enough exercise. Millions of pounds are spent marketing diet and exercise books, slimming aids and weight-loss clubs, and celebrity fitness DVDs top the charts - yet still the overweight and obese are with us.

There are no easy answers to this, but appointing a minister for fitness and giving out titbits of advice will not solve the problem. Why does the Government think that spending taxpayers' millions of pounds telling us to take the stairs rather than the lift will change anything?

New Labour's record on public health improvements is not exactly exemplary; five years ago it launched the Our Healthier Nation strategy, which now appears to have been quietly dropped. And a multimillion-pound campaign to encourage people to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day has failed to increase consumption at all.

I'm all in favour of the Nanny State when it can do some good, but fatness is a question of individual responsibility and action. You can't outlaw eating in public places in the same way that you can smoking.

That is not to say that there is not a role for the Government in tackling obesity, but it has seemed curiously reluctant to get involved in the areas where it could really make a difference. Under massive pressure from food manufacturers, the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, has shied away from introducing a ban on the television advertising of junk food during children's peak viewing times.

Similarly, the powerful supermarkets have steadfastly continued to resist attempts to accept a single "traffic light" system of food labelling that would make it easy for customers to know the "healthiness" of products. Giving the Food Standards Agency the teeth to impose the traffic system would allow the public to make informed choices, but there seems to be little appetite for taking on big businesses in this way.

Even more importantly for a strategy that aims to promote physical activity, much more money needs to be put into providing the spaces for people to take exercise. On a recent holiday in Puglia, a relatively poor region of southern Italy, I was struck by the fact that every little village and town had a well-maintained recreation area, with football pitches and basketball courts that were used every evening by children and adults. Compare that to where I live; a small town of more than 9,000 people in Hertfordshire that has no public swimming pool, sports centre or proper playing fields for its residents - the nearest public facilities are more than five miles away. More than 30,000 playing fields have been lost in England over the past decade, at the same time as the radius around the home in which children are allowed to roam has shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970.

What is the point of spending money on plans for doctors to "prescribe exercise" if the distance to the nearest leisure centre makes it more effort than it's worth?

In the end, however, that is the biggest problem - persuading the overweight that they need to do something about it. The television presenter Anne Diamond, whose yo-yoing weight has been the subject of much comment over the years, said last week that overweight people are seen as greedy and lazy - but the hard truth is that many are just that. Unless we - the fat and the thin, those in government and out of it - are prepared to face up to that unpalatable fact, the obesity timebomb will tick on.