Inactivity, not obesity, is the UK’s shameful public health problem

Here is something to consider, as you settle down for another evening in front of the TV: a sedentary lifestyle – one without sufficient physical activity – is now the fourth biggest cause of premature death in the UK. Levels of physical activity have declined by 20 per cent in the last 20 years – and are projected to drop by a further 15 per cent by 2030 if nothing is done to turn the tide of inactivity in the UK.

If we followed the national guidelines (and most of us do not), 37,000 deaths in the UK could be prevented every year. Apply these stark statistics to almost anything else, say, recreational drugs or alcohol, and people would be up in arms. But the simple fact that people are dying too young because they don’t get off their bottoms often enough does not seem to have captured the imaginations of politicians or public alike.

But that might be about to change. Fred Turok, chairman of UK Active, believes that the inactivity problem has always been overshadowed by undue focus on obesity. ‘There’s no doubt that obesity must be confronted, but it’s distracting us from the chronic problem of inactivity,’ he said at a recent UKA Summit in London. ‘Physical inactivity is a public health problem in its own right, on a par with smoking, drinking and obesity and it needs to be put at the core of our public health strategy.’

Sir Keith Mills, former deputy chairman of LOCOG and founder of Sported, agrees. ‘The evidence that physical activity is ‘good’ has been there for years, but that’s slightly different from evidence that a lack of physical acidity is ‘bad.’ Physical activity is not seen as a priority in public health terms – it’s not taken seriously.’ Mills points out that when the health link to smoking was confirmed, it galvanized action. ‘It took legislation, taxation, education, joined-up government – why can’t we do the same thing with inactivity?’

One of the problems is the environment we live in. It just isn’t conducive to being active. Out-of-town shopping centres and superstores have replaced high street shopping, reducing opportunities for walking. Pollution and crowded, hazardous roads make cycling unattractive and stations and office buildings put lifts and escalators at the forefront, with dingy, hard-to-find stairwells only used by the already-converted.

You’re probably familiar with the national guidelines for physical activity – 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity activity per week. But there is also an independent recommendation in the same report to break up sedentary time. Research from Penn State University found that spending too many hours sitting down had a detrimental effects on blood pressure and and glucose levels regardless of how active you are outside of those eight hours at your desk. ‘We need improved walking and cycling infrastructure,’ says Deputy Chief Medic al Officer Dr David Walker. We also need an attitude shift: one that sees going out for an hour at lunchtime as a normal, no, necessary and beneficial practice and not one for losers and shirkers. One that encourages face-to-face interaction in buildings rather than internal phonecalls and emails. One that promotes walking or standing meeting instead of stuffy gatherings in the boardroom, complete with sugary biscuits. There are some good initiatives afoot.

For example, a new government-funded scheme, StepJockey, will see the installation of ‘smart signs’ on stairwells in public buildings in the UK, giving information on calorie expenditure to users who scan them with a smartphone app. In trials at three buildings, stair usage increased by 29 per cent as a result.  Good, but not quite as innovative as a new machine installed at a Russian subway station that accepts 30 squats as payment for a train ticket. You have to do them properly and in under two minutes to claim your free pass.

Incentivizing exercise may be the way forward. Subtle nudges don’t seem to have worked – people still view exercise as a lifestyle ‘choice’, like a hobby, and not as a way of safeguarding health and wellbeing. It will be interesting to see what steps government takes over the next few years in tackling the inactivity problem. At the UK Active summit, Fred Turok announced an aim to reduce inactivity by a modest one per cent a year over the next five years. Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Health Secretary, laid out a more ambitious target: to get 50 per cent of the population active by 2025. ‘This will be a cornerstone of Labour’s public health policy,’ he pledged. It certainly gets my vote.


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