Too Many Picnics at Hanging Rock

By Becky Gaylord

A year and a half ago, Craig Taplin wasn't well: He discovered he had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Just 42 at the time, he weighed as much as he ever had--his 1.75-meter frame was carrying 110 kilos. "I thought I was eating well, but obviously I wasn't," he says.

Taplin's doctor referred him to GutBusters. Targeted mostly at men, the program gauges fat loss through waist measurement, not weight, and encourages lifestyle changes, such as eating differently and exercising more. Run by health educator Garry Egger, GutBusters also teaches men like Taplin--who says he grew up eating steaks cooked in oil, vegetables slathered with butter, and plenty of cakes and pastries--to become "fat detectives" as they shop for food and order it at restaurants.

And now? Taplin, who lives in the quiet outer suburbs of Sydney, has lost more than 14 kilos and has conquered his health problems. "I'm like a 20-year-old," he boasts. Taplin's weight goal is just 2 kilos away, but he knows his fight against fat won't ever be finished. "Even now, if I slackened off," he says, "the weight would soon pile its way back on again."

Unfortunately for Australians, it seems to be piling on all over the country. The trend defies the stereotype of Aussies as surf-loving, athletic, and trim--an image bolstered by such lithe exports as golfer Greg Norman, supermodel Elle McPherson, and Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan. The portrayal wasn't a myth. "We used to be much leaner and fitter," laments Michael L. Booth, coordinator of the New South Wales Center for the Advancement of Adolescent Health at the Children's Hospital at Westmead.

BULGING MASSES. Waistlines are swelling at such a swift pace that the nation is on track to overtake the U.S. as the world's fattest nation within 10 to 15 years, according to Booth. By 2025, as many as 7 in 10 Aussies will be overweight or obese, based on current trends. Already, more than half of the women and about two-thirds of the men in the country are overweight, based on their body-mass index, a height-weight formula favored by health professionals.

Taplin sees fat people wherever he goes. At a 25-year high school reunion last year, "it really surprised me how many of them were overweight," he says. At the grocery store, Taplin sees adults "buying the worst type of food" for their kids." In fact, children's weight problems have grown especially worrisome, according to doctors. Obesity in children may have as much as doubled in the past 10 to 15 years. At any rate, "there's absolutely no doubt" today's adolescents are the fattest yet, according to Louise A. Baur, associate professor at Sydney University Pediatrics & Child Health Dept.

Consider Dr. Guan Koh's young patients. These kids live in a sun-kissed stretch of Australia known as Tropical North Queensland, where outdoor play is possible most days year-round. Yet the pediatrician has treated a number of pint-size video-game addicts injured after playing for hours inside, lolling on couches or perched on chairs inches from the TV. The injuries? Ulcerated fingers and hands. After one girl gave herself a lesion in her palm from playing the games, Koh coined a term for the afflictions: Nintendinitis.

Pediatrician Koh and other doctors in Australia now frequently diagnose children with Type 2 diabetes, which tends to occur in the overweight and sedentary. Kids didn't used to develop the disease. "It's very troubling," Koh says. One boy who comes to mind, Koh says, has poorly controlled diabetes but plays computer games for hours. Flirting with disaster, the youth simply needs to "get out of the house and exercise," Koh says.

TV AND SNACKS. Because the proportion of two-worker couples is climbing--it topped 50% in Australia for the first time last year--it is increasingly common that no one is at home to supervise children's outside activities after school. For many families, it is easier to have children at home on the computer or watching TV, in part because many Australians feel less safe in their neighborhoods than they used to. The family of one 12-year-old boy who developed hip and joint problems as his weight ballooned to 149 kg turned to doctors for help. The boy was watching up to five hours of TV and snacking as he sat. In discussing him, Sydney University's Baur recalls suggesting walks after school. The response, she says, was: "Oh, we'd get mugged." Generally, kids are walking less and being ferried in the family car more often for short trips. The number of children in Sydney walking to school, for example, fell to 30% in 1997 from 35% in 1991, according to transportation officials.

Children have fewer opportunities to play on swing sets and monkey bars at school and in parks, too. Stung by injury-related lawsuits, some local governments are starting to pull down playgrounds. Fears of vandalism and accidents prompt schools to keep sporting equipment locked up. Organized sports are more common now, but play has become more regimented and restricted. "One hour of soccer a week will not change what five hours of TV a day is doing to you," says Kate Steinbeck, clinical associate professor at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.

It's not just kids, of course: Most Australians are getting less exercise. Aussies love to watch sports, but not necessarily to take part themselves. Just over half of adults participate even in such moderate exercise as hiking or golf. That's down from almost 60% in the late 1990s, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Sydney resident Geoffrey Wolf, a relatively recent convert to exercise who confesses to having battled his weight for years, tries to get to an aquaerobics class most Monday nights. But exercising more frequently is difficult, considering the time he spends with his young family and at his demanding job.

Fitness levels have slipped enough on the Sydney police force that some candidates who would have been too fat to join are now on the beat, according to critics who say the situation compromises safety. What's more, technological advances are reducing what scientists call incidental activity. Instead of walking to the corner video store, for instance, Aussies increasingly are using the Web to summon movies and snacks.

To spur the fight against fat, the federal government has begun sponsoring obesity-prevention programs such as Active Australia, which was created in 1997 by unifying different programs in schools and communities that encouraged participation in sports. Terry Bolland, a director of Canoeing Down Under, one of the groups in Active Australia, has noticed that newcomers tend to sign up for the social networking but stick around when they affirm that the activity really does make them feel better. "One guy lost 10 kilos in the last year," Bolland says. Another man quit smoking after he started canoeing regularly. "They find this new thing they're all excited about," Bolland says.

That's a view that Taplin embraces wholeheartedly. Meals at his family's dining table have changed since he started tackling his weight problem, and he thinks his new attitudes are rubbing off on his family. For instance, he says, his 6-year-old daughter is "very aware of what's good for her and what's bad for her." The newly converted fat detective hasn't become dogmatic, however. Taplin admits that "she still has the occasional McDonald's."

While Gaylord tends to sit behind a computer for long hours, she's also training to run her second marathon.

Edited by Tim Belknap

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