To battle obesity, Britain creates nine 'healthy towns'

With the highest obesity rates in Europe, Britain is investing £30 million ($45 million) to cut the fat.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In Manchester, Britain's third largest city with half a million people, residents will begin carrying electronic tracking tags that log how far they run or cycle each day. The tag will even help track how many calories residents burn. Those who hit the running trail every morning will be rewarded with coupons at stores and even days off work.

Although this new program may sound a bit Orwellian, in Manchester and eight other towns throughout England the British government is banking on it to help rein in the nation's obesity problem.

In an announcement this week, the British government designated the nine "healthy towns" where commercial marketing techniques and training programs will be used in the battle to trim the public's waistline.

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With this new program, Britain joins the ranks of governments around the world trying to fight rapidly rising obesity rates. Expanding waistlines have become such an international problem, health experts have coined the term "globesity," to describe the epidemic.

In Britain, obesity levels are among the highest in Europe. Over the past decade the obesity rate has risen by 50 percent, and now nearly a quarter of British adults are considered obese.

The British Government's health secretary, Alan Johnson, described obesity as England's "biggest health challenge" and has allocated £30 million ($45 million) to the nine "healthy towns."

The money will be used in these pilot cities to develop innovative ways to encourage residents to adopt healthier lifestyles. If the program is successful, the government plans to implement it at the national level.

The government funding will be administered by town councils and local health authorities, which will also dip into their own budgets to run the different programs.

Members of the public taking part in a scheme in Manchester, will be invited to carry one of the electronic tags when they exercise in public parks where the tags can be swiped at access points to log the distance they've covered and how many calories they've burned. People will also get points for buying vegetables and other healthy foods.

The tags, which are modeled on retail loyalty card schemes, will also store up points based on how much its owner exercises. Users can then redeem the points in a special catalog where they can get sports clothing, shoes, and other equipment, as well as a "healthy" day off at a swimming pool for example.

Funds will be directed into urban farming programs and training regimes to help children lose weight in the northeastern town of Middlesbrough, where nearly two-thirds of all adults and a third of children are either overweight or obese.

Still, those in favor of the program say that some people feel uncomfortable about government intervention when it comes to personal fitness.

"A lot of people think it's a nanny state idea; that the issue is one relating to the individual," says Colin Waine of the National Obesity Forum, a charity that has been lobbying for more state action to combat obesity. "But it's like trying to dry out a drug addict. You wouldn't send them back to an environment where drugs are rife and then wonder why they are relapsing. Unless you tackle the factors in the national diet and change the environment then the problem of obesity will continue."

But not everyone is optimistic about the new program. In Tower Hamlets, a neighbourhood in east London, some are skeptical about an awards plan that will attempt to encourage fast-food outlets to put more healthy options on the menu.

"It's a good idea, but the problem is that it would put us out of business if we changed our menu," says Sidoul Islam, assistant manager of 'Real Taste,' a fast-food restaurant in Tower Hamlets where the most popular dishes are kebabs dripping in transfat and served with french fries.

"We tried putting sandwiches on our menu before, with fillings like tuna and egg mayo, but people just didn't go for it. The government needs to start by educating kids at kindergarten. Our customers are adults and they don't want to change their diets."

Rising obesity levels have been blamed on the abundance of fast-food outlets, a decline in home cooking and active lifestyles, and the widespread consumption by the young of carbonated drinks and foods laden with saturated fats.

Nevertheless, public health experts point out that intervention is needed after a report by a British government think-tank warned of an 'obesity time-bomb.' On current trends, it predicted that 60 percent of males and 50 percent of females will be obese by the year 2050.

1. Manchester: Fitness loyalty card plan

2. Thetford: 'Cycle Recycle' project

3. Tower Hamlets: Awards for fast-food restaurants serving healthy food

4. Middlesbrough: Urban farming and health projects for overweight children

5. Halifax: Urban fruit and vegetable gardens in public housing

6. Portsmouth: Signage to help exercisers pace themselves

7. Sheffield: Audits to identify barriers to walking

Source: UK Department of Health

Getting healthy: British towns launch fitness efforts

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