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By: Stan Jackson

Following the launch of the government’s scheme to get obese people back into employment, ukactive External Affairs Manager Stan Jackson asks if it is the right approach, and what it means for the sector…

It’s the title of Channel 5’s hit documentary series…. and now it’s government policy: ‘Too Fat to Work’ – the idea that the government should intervene in welfare payments for obese people if they refuse weight management treatment. It is the latest in a long line of initiatives by the Department of Work and Pensions to get people who have been out of work for a long time back on the right side of the employment statistics.

In July, David Cameron officially launched his enquiry into the impact of drug or alcohol addiction, and obesity on employment outcomes. The aim of the programme, being led by Dame Carol Black, is to assess which weight management programmes have the biggest impact on future employability of people with treatable long-term conditions.

The aim will be to encourage more people who qualify for incapacity benefit through what the DWP considers to be a ‘preventable’ means to seek treatment through an existing local authority scheme (the details are as yet unclear but it is likely that both diet-specific weight management schemes will be considered, as well as those which focus on physical activity) in order to re-enter the workforce.

The government says that the initiative will help to support those with long-term work absence to get back on their feet, while campaigners are calling it ‘utter contempt’ for those on benefits, and even the Chair of the BMA described the move as ‘draconian and silly.’

But with the entire western world facing crises of obesity, inactivity and shrinking working-age populations, the government must surely explore ways to combat these issues- not just to achieve the £12bn cut in welfare required by 2020, but to address the far weightier issue of the £137bn black hole in Health spending, which has itself increased almost two-fold since 2004. Incidentally, unemployment benefits represent just £2.4bn of the annual government purse.

Eating the debate

Dame Carol Black knows a thing or two about workplace health, having led the review into the health of Britain’s working age population in 2008, and heading up the government’s approach to workplace health throughout the last administration; she also sits on ukactive’s board and has been a strong advocate for the impact of physical activity on health for many years.

Other departments, too, are using this Parliament to talk tough on obesity. Public Health England, the Department of Health and the Department for Education are getting set to launch a childhood obesity strategy in the coming months to address the growing concern felt by many about the size of our children’s waists.

These developments serve as a reminder of the unfortunate dogma that still exists around obesity, the ‘media darling’ of lifestyle related conditions.

There’s an understanding in politics that the media leads the political agenda, not vice versa, so the government’s almost exclusive focus on obesity and obesity related outcomes will, one would imagine, carry on in earnest.

On the face of it, both of these developments don’t hold a huge amount of hope for the physical activity sector.

However, behind the scenes and Cameron’s glossy speeches, the most significant outcome of a greater focus on preventable, long-term conditions will come back to physical activity and the ability of the sector to deliver on this issue.

Active matters

ukactive has been saying for many years that it is about the health of hearts, not just the size of waists. This is shown in the evidence of the cost of inactivity to the UK (£20bn, compared to £15bn for obesity) and also the wider positive benefits of leading an active lifestyle.

Although this isn’t always clear in the headlines (for example, when a Health Select Committee report talked almost exclusively about moving more, the papers talked almost exclusively about burgers and gastric bypasses) it is becoming ever clearer in the detail.

Not only will many of the successful ‘weight management’ programmes in local authorities revolve around physical activity as local authorities and regional Public Health England centres continue to focus more and more on how they can get populations active.

The childhood ‘obesity’ strategy, too, is open to consultation. Civil servants, advisers and Ministers all the way up the Health hierarchy, with an increasing interest in what our sector is able to deliver when it comes to turning the tide of inactivity and getting the nation more active.

So although the front-page of the government’s approach to health might be dominated by weight, activity is the driving force of much of the content.

The rest of this year, with the launch of ukactive’s Blueprint for an Active Britain in November, the finalisation of the government’s sports strategy and the next steps in Public Health England’s work in this area, is a crucial time for raising the profile of the sector and its ability to deliver on the big issues.

Luckily, the ground work for this has already been laid, and it appears as though many of the asks we have been making for some time are now closer than ever to appearing in legislation.