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Thursday 28 August 2014

Investing in sport is investing in health

John Greene

Published 02/12/2012 | 17:00

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You might quibble with the actual figure. How can you definitively say that obesity is costing the State €1.1 billion a year? Especially when it includes estimates for absenteeism and lost productivity.

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The figure of €1.1 billion emerged from a study carried out in UCC, which found that conditions commonly associated with obesity – such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes – drive up healthcare costs significantly. Researchers also found that one of the principal causes of absenteeism from work is weight-related lower back pain.

Another estimate last week put the cost to the Exchequer of obesity as higher, at €1.3 billion. It might be higher, it might be lower, but it is certain that the cost is substantial.

And you can't quibble with the facts, which are damning. Because 61 per cent of Irish adults are overweight or obese and 2,000 premature deaths annually in Ireland are attributed to obesity, and over 300,000 children north and south of the border are estimated to be overweight or obese. One in four Irish children are unfit, overweight or obese and have elevated blood pressure, while only one third achieve at least the minimum level of recommended exercise. Physical inactivity is reckoned to cause 27 per cent of diabetes cases and 30 per cent of heart disease cases.

These are pretty stark figures. As noted in the Federation of Irish Sport's latest annual report, "a key element in turning the tide on the rising obesity trend is that all Irish children get the minimum 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day". It adds: "Increased participation in sport therefore will not just improve public health but also could make a significant saving in terms of the money spent on health."

This is the key point. We are spending a fortune dealing with obesity-related diseases and problems after they happen and a tiny amount of money in actually promoting the kind of actions which could prevent them in the first place.

On Wednesday, Finance Minister Michael Noonan (pictured) will confirm that there will be less money for sport in 2013. Of course, as we have been learning all weekend, thanks to some callous leaking, that will be the least of the worries for most people.

In the last few weeks we've heard horrific stories about conditions in some of our schools and hospitals. Naturally, at a time when resources are scarce the argument for sport can become confused by emotive language – why should money be made available to some sport or other when it might be better used keeping hospital beds and school classrooms open?

But next year over €20 billion will be spent on health and education, and little more than €40m will be spent on sport, over half of which is earmarked to fund high-performance units and the country's sporting organisations. The health budget this year was €13.5 billion, which should be plenty to run the health service. That it's not is largely down to inefficiencies and lack of flexibility in the system. Fixing those inefficiencies would make a massive difference to health expenditure. So too would making more money available to promote physical activity.

The problem is that schools don't have any money. Most average clubs don't have money either, so there is an over-reliance on volunteers to pick up the slack. More cuts this week will make this situation worse. And it is the nature of these things that disadvantaged and poorer areas will suffer the most.

For decades, governments have been getting off lightly. Despite having lived through an unprecedented era of economic growth, schools all over Ireland still don't have suitable indoor facilities to conduct PE classes.

If it wasn't for the big three, the GAA, FAI and IRFU, sending coaches at their own expense into schools, there would be black spots all over the country. Because they have been doing the work that has been abdicated by the State, and the GAA in particular has a long history of doing the government's job when it comes to health and fitness.

The Munster Council recently conducted a review of its coaching network and found that GAA activity in schools in the province currently accounts for 46,000 hours, the equivalent of 62 full-time PE teachers, and that the value generated by GAA activity in schools was €2.2m.

It's not all about the money. Between 1999 and 2012, we spent somewhere in the region of €1.3bn on sport and what have we to show for it? There was a clear failure to establish a link between the development of facilities and the promotion of participation because there was no coherent national strategy, and there still isn't.

We know what the problems are, and we know how to fix them. It doesn't require huge sums – €10m spent next year will knock many multiples of that off the health spend in 20 years' time, so long as it is spent correctly.

Sunday Indo Sport

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