Warning: if you’re sitting at your desk or on your sofa reading this article, it could be killing you. Inactivity has, apparently, reached pandemic proportions and is responsible for around one in 10 deaths from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and breast and colon cancer. Forget mutated meningoencephalitis or a genetically-engineered variant of the measles virus, next year’s Hollywood blockbuster could see Kate Winslet and Will Smith running around desperately trying to get busloads of couch potatoes down the gym before it closes, saving the world from imminent death by inactivity.
Exercise has long been packaged and sold to us as a panacea, responsible for giving us a six-pack to making us live longer. According to a report by the Lancet, inactivity is causing 5.3 million deaths a year. We know that, as a nation, we need to be more active. This isn’t new information and yet (Will Smith with a HGV licence aside) we haven’t solved the problem of how exactly to make people move about more.
The study suggests that just telling us about the benefits of exercising won’t make us pull on our trainers. Not enough of us are being motivated by the image of the body beautiful to actually do the exercise required to get there (or maybe we’ve just become wise to Photoshop tomfoolery). Instead, it recommends that the public be made aware of the dangers of inactivity. Forget dangling carrots; hit them with a stick.
It worked for cigarettes. Pictures of lung and mouth cancers on the outside of cigarette packets are turning off smokers. But how this translates to inactivity is anyone’s guess. Adverts in the middle of Coronation Street extolling the dangers to your heart of sitting on the sofa for the second half? Posters on bus shelters showing a diabetic amputee to encourage you to walk to the next stop? Would that make you be more active?
I should confess that I am a reformed couch potato. Until four years ago, exercise was something that other people did. I’ve since run four marathons and have now agreed to take on an Ironman. Much like an ex-smoker who becomes the most vocal of anti-smoking campaigners, I’m evangelical about running. Where my mum offers a cup of tea as a panacea for everything from a headache to feeling blue, I now prescribe a three-mile run to those around me. I’ve encouraged several friends to take up running without resorting to sending pictures of withered arteries to them in an email. Instead I show them pictures of me sweaty, exhausted but smiling at the end of a race and tell them how fantastic it feels – blisters and all.
We all want different things from participating in sports – I have no interest in getting a six-pack but a nice shiny medal and the sense of achievement at the end of a 26.2 mile race works a treat. Others like the social aspect of sports, the weight management aspect it gives them or the competitiveness it allows them – but the common thread is enjoyment. My motivation to start running came from various places, but what makes me continue is the pure enjoyment of doing it: the satisfaction and joy I get from simply moving my body.
Despite the Lancet finding that the UK is among the worst in Europe when it comes to inactivity levels, a survey by Sport England says that we’re the most active we’ve been in a while with 15 million of us playing sport once a week, every week. Particularly strong growth as been noted in cycling, football, athletics and hockey – sports that are cheap and easy to do, get people together as a team and receive a fair bit of press coverage. So if you want people to be more active, make it safe, make it cheap and make it easy to participate in.
But above all, make it enjoyable, and lay off the stick.
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