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What’s really behind the obesity epidemic?

Steve ‘Commando’ Willis


What’s really behind the obesity epidemic?

By 2020 an incredible 65 per cent of children are predicted to be overweight or obese. Steve ‘Commando’ Willis says we need to have a positive mindset and lead by example in order to tackle the problem.

Responsibility for the health and wellbeing of today’s young people rests on the shoulders of adults now, but Steve ‘Commando’ Willis believes it will be next generation who will begin to turn the tide on the startling obesity rates we have in Australia.

Mr Willis, who has ditched the trademark black singlet and camo pants that made him a fitness icon on the Australian version of The Biggest Loser, is still a passionate health crusader and is continuing to focus on changing attitudes to reverse the poor lifestyle decisions that have led Australians down a slippery health slope.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s latest statistics show 26 per cent, or 1.2 million, Australian children aged two to 17 are overweight or obese and if the current trend continues, the proportion of overweight or obese children and young adults aged between five and 24 is expected to increase another 14 per cent by 2020.

When you consider a Cancer Council Queensland study into the obesity rates of Queenslanders shows 64.3 per cent of adults in this state are categorised as overweight or obese, with 60.3 per cent of Sunshine Coast residents found to be in that category, many adults are not leading by example.

Mr Willis says the country will continue to see a rise in these figures as we work through “the hangover of our ignorance and bad choices”.

“The upside to this is that we are seeing a lot of younger people who are very emotionally intelligent and conscious of how we relate to other humans and the wider earth that we live in.

“I’m getting a bit deep here, but we all play a role in this world and the more mindful we become of all elements in our lives, including our own health, we will begin to see the butterfly effect of changes to the negative choices of the past,” he says.

Mr Willis was on the Coast in April to put a dozen local children through their paces in the lead-up to the Sanitarium Kids TRYathlon at the University of the Sunshine Coast. The TRYathlon holds a special place in the father-of-four’s heart.

His 10-year-old daughter Ella competed in several events in New South Wales and Mr Willis says it was heartening to see so many families getting out and being active together.

“We set the tone as adults of what’s expected, and that tone should reflect wellbeing in all of its facets,” he tells My Weekly Preview.

“We are all human and moving is essential in maintaining wellbeing. What the kids learn becomes the norm. They don’t question it, but they will carry it with them in their lives.

“Children don’t see the ramifications of not moving, and it can sometimes be a challenge, but the damage is already being seen, with lifestyle and chronic diseases we didn’t see until adulthood now appearing in childhood.”

University of the Sunshine Coast’s head of Health and Sports Sciences John Lowe says it is our sweet teeth getting the better of us.

“The biggest issue for Australia and unfortunately the Sunshine Coast is the overconsumption of sweetened beverages,” he says.

“While we’re seeing increasing opportunities for places where people can fill up water bottles, consumption of these beverages is still much higher. These drinks enhance the desire to have sweet food  as well.”

Prof Lowe agrees with Mr Willis that while it is easy to fall into the traps of a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating, it can become a dangerous spiral that will affect not only you, but the rest of the family as well.

“What we see in all our research is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, when parents are physically active, children are also physically active, when parents are sedentary, children are sedentary,” he says.

“Any parents will tell you that when you say, ‘c’mon kids, lets go for a walk,’ you get the whingeing, but it’s all about continuing to be persistent and spending that time together.

“The other thing is fast food. There are now a number of companies that can prepare and deliver nutritional food so that even time-poor families can choose a healthier alternative.”

With a temperate climate year-round on the Sunshine Coast, Prof Lowe says it is still important during the cooler months to remain active.

“We don’t live in Norway or some place where we hibernate during the winter. Twenty-two degrees is a beautiful day to get out and join walking groups, go for a ride or play a game outside with the family,” he says.

Federal Government guidelines recommend 180 minutes of physical activity each day for children aged between one year and five years old and 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day for children aged between five and 12 years old.

A recent study led by the University of Western Australia found two-thirds of children in the lower age group aren’t getting sufficient physical activity for their growth and development.

Prof Lowe says it is more important to look at levels of physical activity rather than to rely on BMI (Body Mass Index) to determine your level of health.

A BMI is calculated by taking a person’s weight in kilograms and dividing it by the square of their height in metres. There are different BMI ranges for genders and ages, but Prof Lowe says it can be misleading.

“I know my percentage of body fat, but when I jump on one of those machines that calculate your BMI, it will tell me that I am overweight,” he says.

“For someone who is physically active and has some muscle definition, they are going to weigh more than someone who doesn’t and that’s the fallacy of it. Some of our greatest athletes will have a BMI that will put them in the overweight category.

“So instead of being fixated on BMIs, let’s move away from looking at who needs exercise to the fact that everybody needs it.”

Mr Willis says the key to a healthier life is open-mindedness and trying new things.

“My youngest, Axel, is a fruitarian. He thinks he’s a monkey and eats bananas, oranges, dates, pears and figs.

“He will always avoid vegetables and go straight for the fruit, and while most people would get concerned and start to over-analyse ‘why is he not eating this and that’ what they are doing is imposing their own issues on the child.

“Instead, it’s important to set the tone and help them to connect with the things that do nourish them and create awareness about the other nutrient-dense, nutritional foods that they can try and then carry that into their lives as they grow older.

“Bribery or rewarding with treats is also a danger zone. These habits can quickly take hold and take a lot of energy to break.”

Fear can also stop parents helping their children pursue more physical activity.

“Axel loves to be inverted, and that can scare some parents. As much as we don’t like to see our kids make mistakes, it’s what it means to be human and they need to find their own boundaries and build their own experiences.

“Give them opportunities to build their hand-eye coordination, have confidence in the water and learn life skills.

“If parents are skeptical or scared, and there is an element of fear around the unknown, children pick up on that. The other thing that goes hand in hand with that is children don’t have as many expectations as adults in terms of an outcome and they have a willingness to put a certain amount of effort in.

“Whereas for adults, we expect something in return otherwise we won’t put our best foot forward.”

Mr Willis says we tend to ‘adultise’ things too much and there is a lot to be said about letting children be children.

“Let them try something new and they might excel or really enjoy something you may never have thought they would like. Once they sink their teeth into something, boom, off they go,” he says.

While organised sports can be a great outlet for kids, Mr Willis says making simple changes to what you do every day can also boost activity levels for the whole family.

“The smallest things, the things we consider very incidental or may overlook can actually help to change your overall narrative, the pattern, or the habit,” he says.

“Instead of spending weekends of sitting around at cafes, go out for a bushwalk and get out and enjoy this beautiful country we have. Go camping, go to the park and have a picnic, take the soccer ball or a frisbee to the beach instead of sitting around on the sand.

“Stop for a second and listen to that intuition, that little voice in your stomach region, that says ‘do this, don’t do that’, and through this we find we do make more informed and better choices, which over time can transform your life.”

10 easy ways to improve the health of the family

> Swap the couch for the great outdoors
> Get active with a friend or group to make it more social
> Drink lots of water and avoid sugary drinks
> Go camping and breathe in the fresh air for a weekend
> Take a picnic to a park
> Swap treat rewards for verbal praise and hugs
> Think and talk positively about exercise
> Explore healthier food delivery options if you are time poor
> Make up new games, like hopping down the hallway
> Surround yourself with people with a healthy mindset – it’s infectious!

Commando’s advice on how to make a change

“A lot of people have this perception of me that I’m this hard-arse guy who likes to get out of bed and eat concrete for breakfast.

People often scratch their heads when they realise I’m just as human as they are. They learn that they can also implement things that can make them a better version of themselves.

It’s all right to be vulnerable, it’s all right to experience pain. Training and exercise is hard, there’s pain and essentially there’s suffering attached to it, but there is a gift within that suffering.

If the intentions behind it are to maintain a quality of life, we are working towards a level of functionality and it is a positive.

If we’re doing exercise because we don’t like what we see in the mirror or feel obligated to, we are acting on a negative and therefore, children will see exercise in a light of resentment and contempt.

Give you and your children space to develop awareness. Have quiet time, be out in nature and focus on being in the present moment and rebel against this compulsion we have to just be busy. Emotions are tangible, and children will pick up on any stress that you have.

I often talk to people about surrendering to or accepting your current situation and they might want to be a million-and-one things all at once. But rather than be overwhelmed, make small changes and if your mindset is right, profound change can occur very quickly.

Three months, six, nine, even a year isn’t a long time in the scheme of how long we live, but if you can use that timeframe to be kinder and more compassionate to yourself, your children will pick up on it and they will see how you are working to transform your life.

Surround yourself with people who are a little further down their wellbeing journey and you can draw inspiration from them as well as tap into the collective energy that makes it easier when you are accountable to others instead of just yourself.”


Roxy has been a journalist for more than a decade and joined the MWP team at the end of 2016. She is a chocolate-powered writing machine who loves to engage with the Coast community, uncover untold inspirational stories and share information that can help people.

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