Graphic: Nation’s health improving slowly

What you don’t measure, you can’t improve, said Health Minister Leo Varadkar after a health-of-the-nation study revealed people spend around five hours a day sitting around.

But the Irish lifestyle is improving slowly, according to the Healthy Ireland report: Fewer than one in five smoke, obesity has levelled off, and more people are exercising regularly.

There are now more ex-smokers in Ireland than smokers. “I think that is evidence public health policies over time do make a big difference,” Mr Varadkar said.

However, it emerged some people are still consuming too much alcohol, not taking enough exercise, and 60% are overweight.

Only 32% of the population meet the national physical activity recommendations even though people know they should be more physically active.

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And just 15% of those drinking at harmful levels realise that drinking damages their health.

Mr Varadkar said the rate of binge drinking in Ireland was the second highest in the European region. The Healthy Ireland study showed drinking to excess was commonplace across all sections of society and four in ten drinkers binge drink at least once a month.

He said he expects to publish the Public Health Alcohol Bill in “a matter of weeks”, and that it was the first time the State would seek to tackle alcohol misuse on public health grounds.

The Healthy Ireland survey of 7,500 people aged 15 and over gives an up-to-date picture of the health of the nation.

“This survey gives us some really useful information and will be repeated every year. What you don’t measure you can’t improve,” Mr Varadkar said.

“It will feed into new policies on obesity, sexual health, and physical activity, and further legislation to control tobacco use.”

The first national comprehensive survey conducted since 2007 also shows while 85% of people consider they have good health, 28% have a long-standing condition.

Mr Varadkar said the study found a slight reduction in obesity levels since 2007. “Ireland is certainly not on track to be the most obese country in Europe, at least not based on this survey.”

However, he said the fact remained that about 60% of the population was overweight or obese and, as a result, Ireland faces a dramatic increase in chronic diseases that could reverse improvements made in life expectancy.

Mr Varadkar said a second Healthy Ireland survey is already under way and that would show if efforts being made to address a range of health issues were working.

The Healthy Ireland ethos puts emphasis on individual choice and autonomy — individuals, families and communities need to take the lead on their own health and wellbeing. “But society and government can and should play a part in making Ireland a more healthier environment in which to make those choices,” said Mr Varadkar.

Healthy Ireland data will be used to underpin policy development and implementation, as well as meeting many international reporting obligations, including to the OECD, EU, and WHO.

President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Prof Frank Murphy, said the findings showed a worrying lack of awareness of the damage that alcohol caused to health.

Calling for support for the Public Health Alcohol Bill, Prof Murphy said it could play an important role in dealing with alcohol abuse

“The survey shows how public health initiatives that were fiercely resisted by tobacco companies have been a resounding success in reducing deaths and smoking rates in Ireland. We have an opportunity to make similar strides in reducing the health harms of alcohol,” he said.

Body matters

Most smokers (63%) are trying to, planning to or considering quitting, with more adults now ex-smokers (28%) than current smokers (23%).

The Healthy Ireland study also found 42% of smokers have tried e-cigarettes at some point and 6% use them. Just one in 1,000 of never smokers use e-cigarettes.

Vape Business Ireland said it showed e-cigarettes were not a gateway to smoking and the Department of Health should keep this in mind when regulating the sector further.

The study found lower levels of drinking in more deprived areas and among lower income groups but higher levels of binge drinking.

Men drink more frequently than women — 60% of men who drink do so at least weekly, compared to 46% of women. Almost one in five (18%) regretted something they said or did after drinking — 3% claimed to have been in an accident and 2% in a physical fight.

Only 15% of those drinking at harmful levels knew they were damaging their health.

Young women aged 15 to 24 spend almost seven hours every day sitting, longer than any other group. The average time spent sitting each weekday is just over five hours.

Half of women aged 55 or over engage in low levels of activity or none at all, compared with 38% of men of the same age.

Men are more likely to be obese than women across all ages, with the exception of those 15 to 24. About 9% of people were found to have low levels of energy and vitality, indicating a probable mental health problem, with younger women and older men most at risk.

Almost one in five people (17%) having sex outside of a steady relationship did not use contraception.

-Evelyn Ring

More than quarter of people have long-standing illness

More than one in four (28%) of people have a long-standing illness or health problem and more than half (57%) are limited in their everyday activities.

However, when given the opportunity to access their own health status, 85% reported their health in general as being good, or very good and there was no gender difference.

The Healthy Ireland study found that those in the higher social classes were more likely to report their health as good or very good.

Of the 43% who suffered from a health condition over the past 12 months, high blood pressure (12%) and back disorders and defects (12%) were among the most common issues.

About three quarters (71%) have visited a GP in the last 12 months, with more frequent visits made by women and older people.

More than one in five do not eat fruit or vegetables every day, with almost two-thirds (65%) eating snack foods or sugar-sweetened drinks every day.

Women (82%) are more likely to eat fruit or vegetables than men (73%) with daily consumption lower in areas of deprivation.

Three out of four (73%) people eat breakfast every day but 5% never do.

-Evelyn Ring

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