Obesity cuts life expectancy by nine years and is a 'modern lifestyle epidemic that is threatening our health and well-being' said Northern Ireland's Health Minister Edwin Poots.
Speaking at the launch of The Framework for Preventing and Addressing Overweight and Obesity in Northern Ireland 2012-2022: ‘A Fitter Future for All’, Poots said promoting cycling was a key tool in tackling the 'epidemic'.
A ten year strategy will seek to improve the health and well-being of people of all ages, from newborns to seniors.
“We need to face the issue of obesity head on," said Poots. "It’s an issue that will require commitment and action from across all sectors, including other government departments and agencies. It is therefore my intention to invest more than £7 million towards tackling the problem of obesity over the next three years.
“In Northern Ireland 59 per cent of adults are either overweight (36 per cent) or obese (23 per cent). Another worrying statistic is that eight per cent of children aged 2-15 years were assessed as being obese. These figures demonstrate the scale of the problem and the enormous challenge we are facing.
“The new framework sets challenging targets. To date we have focused on simply trying to stop the rise in the levels of obesity, however under 'A Fitter Future For All' we want to reduce the level of obesity by four per cent and overweight and obesity by three per cent among adults. This means changing for better the lives of around 60,000 people.
“This will require changes in our lifestyles and behaviours. Most importantly, individuals need to be given the opportunity to make decisions that will benefit their own health and well-being.”
Cycling tackles obesity
A framework of measures includes aims on food and education, as well as much emphasis on encouraging participating in physical activity, promoting walking and cycling and encouraging and supporting more community involvement with these issues.
“The negative impact on health caused by obesity cannot be overstated," added the Minister.
"Being obese increases the risk of developing serious illnesses such as heart disease; stroke, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes and can cut life expectancy by nine years.
“It is a significant challenge facing modern society and if we don’t tackle it now we are storing up a multitude of problems for ourselves in the future.”
“More and more of our children and young people are becoming overweight or obese and are putting themselves at risk of developing a range of health problems in their later years.
“Evidence shows that it is more likely that an obese child will become an obese adult. This in turn will lead to a greater strain on our health and social care services, with more people requiring treatment and specialist care for obesity-related illnesses.”
Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride added: “Obesity is one of the most important public health challenges facing Northern Ireland today. It knows no age limits, no boundaries, it does not discriminate and it brings with it increased risks of developing serious health problems.
“People should be aware of the importance of a healthy diet and taking more exercise. We must act now to avoid a future where our children face significant health problems. Individuals can make choices in everyday life that will improve and protect their health.”
Sustrans has welcomed the strong focus on walking and cycling contained in Poot's ten-year plan to prevent and address obesity in Northern Ireland.
The charity's Northern Ireland Director Steven Patterson commented: "Obesity is costing Northern Irish taxpayers millions of pounds a year. All too often we react only after the event, if we really want to tackle obesity we need put in place measures that will prevent people from becoming obese.
"We're pleased to see that the Minister has included walking and cycling in his plan. Encouraging people to travel actively will allow people to get the exercise they need as part of their daily routine. Two-thirds of all journeys under five miles in Northern Ireland are being made by car, only thirty minutes on a bike, so there is a huge opportunity for change.
"One of the first things the Northern Ireland Executive could do is introduce a 20mph speed limit on all of our residential streets, making them safer for pedestrians and cyclists."