The Olympic legacy was meant to be a fitter, more active Britain, but research published last week in The Lancet shows that two out of three of us in the UK are not meeting the weekly physical activity guidelines – in fact, we are among the least active nations in the developed world.
Constant extolling of the many and varied virtues of exercise appears to be falling on deaf ears, which is why the researchers who penned the report have opted to take a different tack and, instead of trying to sell the public something they evidently don’t want to buy, have resorted to shock tactics. For example, the report suggests that a sedentary lifestyle is as detrimental to health as smoking – responsible for 5.3 million (that’s 1 in 10) premature deaths worldwide each year as a result of non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Got that, couch potatoes? Your unwillingness to work up a sweat is not only contributing to the likelihood of ill health but is also likely to knock years off your life.
But the researchers aren’t just appealing to the inactive majority to get off their butts – they’re also making a ‘call to action’ to the powers that be to take the issue of physical activity as preventative health much more seriously. ‘The global challenge is clear: make physical activity a public health priority throughout the world to improve health and reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases,’ they write.
What is exercise for?
As someone who has been in the fitness industry a long time, I believe that physical activity has long been underrated, and even miss-sold, in the UK. One problem is that we have an inaccurate perception of what exercise can ‘do’ for us. For example – we’re told that we don’t need to go to the gym or don running shoes, we can simply get off the train one stop earlier and walk, or do some gardening. That’s fine, in general health terms, if it’s done frequently enough to amount to the recommended activity guidelines – but it won’t assist with weight loss or improve fitness, which is what most people want to achieve from exercise. And it certainly won’t get you Lady Gaga’s body. People expect to get a lot more ‘bang for their buck’ than is really achievable from small amounts of low-intensity activity, and when they don’t get the results they hope for, they give up. Just think how easy it is to eat a couple of chocolate HobNobs. You’d need to be weeding your flower beds for 45 minutes to burn those off. I blame misleading media coverage (promising instant results from miracle diets and workouts), confused messages from government and celebrities pretending they don’t have to exercise to get their super lean, toned bodies.
And unlike in many countries worldwide, such as Canada, Australia and the Scandinavian nations, it seems as if exercise is viewed in the UK as a ‘lifestyle choice,’ – like, say, going to concerts or camping holidays. ‘Oh, I don’t like exercise,’ people often tell me when they find out what I do for a living. But exercise – be it a physically active daily lifestyle or structured exercise in a gym, pool or out on the roads – is as essential to health and wellbeing as eating and sleeping. The body needs it in order to function properly – and the catalogue of diseases that are a result of not doing it stand testament to that.
While we’re constantly told how important it is to be active, I believe that many of the opportunities to be so are being taken away, both physically and culturally. For example, playing fields being sold off for development, parks that don’t allow cycling, a working culture in which taking your lunch break – or leaving on time – is often frowned upon, a shift from high street shopping to out of town centres that necessitate driving.
In London the other day, I got off the underground and decided to take the stairs instead of joining the queue for the lift. Instead of encouraging me to climb the stairs, perhaps by telling me how many calories I would burn or how much it would improve my fitness if I did it regularly, (and there is scientific evidence to support this here) the sign at the foot of the staircase advised me to take the lift, as there were a lot of stairs.
Telling people exercise is good for them hasn’t worked. Now we’re telling them that if they don’t exercise, it’s bad for them. But neither of these messages is of much use if the opportunities aren’t there. There needs to be far more encouragement and opportunity to exercise in daily life. Showers in workplaces as standard, lunch time exercise sessions not just supported, but even provided, bike storage, safe and accessible open spaces, affordable activities for all.
And finally, let’s get rid of the ever-present caveat that comes with exercise ‘if you’re going to take up exercise always check with your doctor first,’ which makes it sound like a dangerous undertaking. If the new findings on the inherent dangers of inactivity are anything to go by, the health warning should be to see your doctor if you aren’t planning to take up exercise.