Fighting our gut instinct

Australians, according to a widely-reported survey from 2008, are the fattest people in the world. And yet the OECD recently announced that we are also the happiest. Okay, so that’s probably because we couldn’t be bothered worrying about the survey saying we were the fattest. Or it might be because we have one of the few economies whose prospects aren’t more miserable than Craig Thomson’s preselection chances.

Sure, you have to take these surveys with a grain of salt – or, given the Australian diet, more likely a heaped tablespoon of salt. Another recent survey says we’ve now slumped to a mere fifth in the fatness stakes. But regardless of exactly where we sit in the top five, we, as a nation, are currently both exceptionally plump and exceptionally cheerful.This correlation between obesity and jolliness will come as no surprise to fans of 1980s movies, which featured many fine exponents of the funny fattie character, from John Belushi to John Goodman to John Candy. They’re generally called John, for some reason, and bring joy to millions before, in many cases, dying a premature death.

But – and I fear this may spoil John Hughes’ classic comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, so if you haven’t watched it, you might want to take ninety minutes or so to do that before continuing with this article. (Pause.) When they want a twist in those classic comedies, it turns out that the funny fatso, the life and soul of the party, is generally crying on the inside, and just wants to be loved, despite being all hideous and fat.

And thus, at the end of PT&A (I’m sorry if I’m spoiling it, but honestly, you can see the ending coming about as far off as you can see John Candy), after a series of contrived circumstances throw them together on a cross-country road trip (What’s that you say? The movie sounds exactly the same as Robert Downey Jr. and Zack Galifianakis’ comedy Due Date? Goodness me, I hadn’t noticed) it emerges that John Candy’s annoying yet cheerful loser is left alone and impoverished. At Thanksgiving, of all times!

Fortunately, the slim, successful Steve Martin character relents and invites him home for a slap-up turkey dinner with his loving family. Heartwarming stuff. And also potentially heartstopping stuff, I fear.

We don’t get to find out what happens after that, though – presumably after the three days were over, subtle hints were dropped, and then unsubtle hints were dropped, and Del was turfed out again, homeless and broke. They never made a sequel.

I wonder how happy John Candy was, though. Even if they’re raking in the bucks in Hollywood, I would be very surprised if very many overweight people are happy with their bodies, with the possible exception of sumo wrestlers. And even then, I assume that after retirement, most of them wake up in the morning and stare into the mirror and wonder how on earth they made that particular career decision. Especially if they didn’t make much money, and have little more to show for their years of sumo toil besides difficulty walking through standard doors.

I’m allowed to make fat jokes, incidentally, since I’m not exactly Slim Shady myself. I know how debilitating it can be to put on a shirt that’s a bit too tight and say to yourself – well, I’m not going out in that. You feel guilty, you promise to do better and then, when you don’t, you feel disappointed in yourself. It’s not exactly a limitless source of jolliness.

But there’s only so much sympathy that those who are overweight because of lifestyle rather than medical factors deserve, surely? If there’s something in your life that persistently makes you feel bad, and you can change it by modifying your behaviour, why on earth wouldn’t you? But we don’t, which is ridiculous and foolish and yet an extremely common human instinct. Personally, the goal of shedding around 10kg has eluded me for quite some years now. My wholehearted theoretical devotion to this goal is yet to translate into, well, actually doing anything much about it.

Well, I’ve changed my coffee order to skim milk, even though it tastes miserable. Thanks, I’ll be autographing my weight-loss book later.

There is no better illustration of Australians’ self-defeating lack of self-motivation than the statistics on heart disease. It kills more Australians than anything else, and yet most of us are given years, decades even, to do something to stave it off. And that’s because of what are known as “modifiable risk factors” – things like smoking, high cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes, physical inactivity, being overweight, and finally depression and social isolation.

Okay, so the last one is a bit complicated, but the only thing preventing most people from addressing the first six of those factors is willpower, surely? There are other factors you can’t change, such as “increasing age, being male and having a family history of heart disease”, and regrettably Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also at increased risk. But we don’t modify the modifiable factors, even though addressing most of those lifestyle factors is as simple as diet and exercise.

And yet simply pointing to diet and exercise is like when Kofi Annan tells Syria that both sides just need to put down their guns. Sure, it’s a simple solution. Sure it’d totally work. Sure, all it takes is the exercise of will. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

So what can we do about it? At times like these, many of us turn to the most important source of wisdom in this secular age, Yoda. “Do or do not,” he told Luke Skywalker. “There is no try.” And that scene was also about moving very heavy objects – one’s spaceship in Luke’s case, one’s gut in ours, so it’s directly applicable, except for the minor inconvenience of the Force not actually existing.

Nevertheless, Yoda is right, even if his extraordinary wisdom is yet again accompanied by extremely poor mastery of English syntax. There’s no point banging on about our lack of motivation, especially since in the time it’s taken for me to write this article, I could have gone to the gym twice over. The fact that I find whinging more enjoyable than working out is my problem, and it’s up to me to do something about it.

I think it’s reasonably clear that Australians being simultaneously overweight and happy involves more coincidence than correlation. But Australians being overweight and complacent and distracted is something that no doubt a lot of us can relate to.

I don’t really know how to end this article, except by tritely saying “Life. Be In It”, and going off to have a swim. Honestly. I’m going to have a swim. Involving laps. Right now.

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