Economic Cost of Obesity in Children for Future Economies

With the winding up of the OPAL program by the State Government in June 2017 I wanted to reflect on the linkages of good health in our communities and the positive impact it has on our economies with higher quality lifestyles, liveability and therefore more engagement in the various layers of our economy with a workforce able to participate.

I wanted to reflect on a point I made in my previous article around the economic value of leisure centres and that was the cost of Childhood Obesity to the Australian economy which was according to the Productivity Commission $58 billion in 2008 and growing.

What will this mean for our future economies in terms of the cost for health care with increasing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Only time will tell, but we can look to understand this now and see how preventative programs like OPAL can play a part in how we support intergenerational change and construct our economies now and invest now to prevent future burdens that will be at greater cost economically.

OPAL is a program that has focused on preventative health in children and intergenerational outcomes based on a French model EPODE that has had some outstanding results so far in reducing obesity levels, lifting self-esteem in children and is being duplicated around the world.

More needs to be done in preventative health to future proof our economies and not create on going and growing burdens for these economies in increasing health care costs and reductions in the workforce’s capacity to respond, given related growing ill health trends.

As outlined in the nature review journal, obesity is on the increase globally, largely as a result of global trade, rapid urbanisation and resulting economic development that have impacted lifestyles

As I touched on before, leisure facilities are not only as key local economic catalyst but also serve their communities and customers in promoting physical activity and improving mental health which have wider economic benefits, but Green Infrastructure like parks and contact with nature are also key to long term health and wellbeing.

Improvements in these areas can only be good for future proofing our economies and communities and our kids need to be engaged in these spaces to set them on the right path. A report from Beyond Blue outlines that those with less contact with nature are more stressed and more likely to be overweight which are factors working against a productive workforce in the future.

We focus a lot on the lifestyle aspects of our cities, towns and villages and in that, it is the experiences we have with them that sets them apart and encourages us to return and spend. Often it is the landscape that surrounds the café or the precinct you love, the park or playground that is close by, or the contact with people that is a result of thoughtful design that promotes engagement with your community or it is the view and contact with natural assets like rivers, lakes, creeks, oceans or the ease of use or walkability.

Getting this right is key to the economic cycle for these areas and will determine their success or failure as shown with the success of Prospect Rd or Stirling for instance, and can only be enhanced by higher levels of activation and use through thoughtful planning encouraging activity.

We often take Green Infrastructure for granted, but is one of the key links in the obesity mix and one of the cheapest layers of infrastructure to provide when compared to health care costs. The Beyond Blue report also highlights that outdoor play offers long-term benefits in physical, emotional, social and cognitive development that can only improve the opportunities of participating in future economies and succeeding and thus creating the links and opportunities to engage now are key.

In Australia (and in particular Adelaide with an increasing liveability rating) we are lucky to be in the top 10 cities in the world using the Liveability index that takes into account over 30 factors including education , healthcare, safety, environment and infrastructure to name a few

Understanding this and the levers such as ongoing health (e.g. obesity) and the ability to participate in the workforce with a good lifestyle will be key to retaining this ranking in my view.

Now is a time of change and ripe for innovation with challenges around using technology to encourage kids to be active and experience nature with apps like Digital Playgrounds used for Parks Week using fairies and dinosaurs to kids into local parks

The use of sensors to understand our pedestrian precincts and spaces where communities congregate helping  us improve programming, utilisation, experiences, activation and activity.

To new user lead models of services like the NDIS rolling through and My Age Care putting the control in the hands of those requiring the care and as new services are required to match our changing lifestyles there are opportunities to respond using technology and all the long creating micro economies.

Wouldn’t it be great to be in a space where funding is channelled into preventative health and lifestyle assets and infrastructure instead of ongoing health care which is a result of increasing obesity issues and related diseases.

The Federal Government recognises the need, stating that just 2% of total health care expenditure is spent on preventative health, yet 32% of health care cost can be attributed to modifiable health risk factors which is a significant cost

Therefore, I think there is a fair business case to invest in preventive health. To not only improve the health of our communities but also make them workforce ready, starting with our children and the intergenerational challenges of obesity, as well as reducing the health cost burden and future proofing our economies with workforces that are able to meet the challenges of our changing society. But what role will technology play in this space and I suppose that’s the challenge for today’s innovators.


By Kevin Lowe
General Manager Urban Planning & Leisure Services at
The City of Campbelltown (SA)