‘Physical Inactivity’: a paradigm shift

As a nation, we are unhealthy. I could take my pick of any kind of statistic to illustrate this: that one in three adults in the UK have high blood pressure, that only 1 in 10 children eats the recommended ‘5 a day’, that a quarter of adults in the UK are clinically obese.

The health risks posed by obesity, and the scale of the problem in the UK, are widely acknowledged. But at the other end of the spectrum, there’s worry too. The pressures on young women to look good have been well documented, and a marked increase in eating disorders (up by 15% since 2000) is frequently blamed on our image-obsessed society. And here we have a dichotomy: we’re unhealthy, unfit, and overweight, whilst at the same time a growing proportion of the population is starving themselves in pursuit of the unobtainable perfect body.

Fewer people are more of an advocate of the importance of communicating the benefits of healthy eating and regular exercise than I am. But browse the magazine shelf in any newsagent and you will be confronted with a myriad of headlines: ‘our top 40 belly-slimming foods’, ‘the best bum toning exercises’, ‘get a bikini body in 4 weeks’. It seems clear to me that a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and adequate exercise, is always linked back to the same thing: body size and shape. And this is where we are going horribly, horribly wrong.

It’s not important to eat well so that we can sport a washboard stomach like Cheryl Cole’s. And it’s not important that we exercise so that we have legs like Pixie Lott’s. Hell, it’s not even important that we exercise so that we can squeeze into those size 10 jeans. It’s important that we exercise because frankly if we don’t, we are putting ourselves in severe danger of a plethora of chronic, and ultimately fatal, health problems.

And this is just one of many instances where UK Active’s recent report, ‘Turning the Tide of Inactivity’ has really got it right. For too long the focus of Public Health initiatives has been on reducing obesity, with this singular focus on weight loss reinforcing the importance of body image as a cornerstone by which we as a society judge ourselves and each other. But by separating the issues of obesity and physical inactivity, the report has brought about a much-needed change of focus.

Because you can be a size 8 whilst still being inactive, and you can have a BMI which suggests ‘morbidly obese’ whilst playing professional sport. Weight, shape and size are not the be all and end all. UK Active’s report highlights some scary, and often overlooked, statistics: physical inactivity itself increases the risk of around 20 chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and is responsible for 17% of premature deaths in the UK each year. That 12.5 million people in England fail to exercise for 30 minutes a week is as good an example as any of the unhealthy state of our nation.

By bringing the issue of physical inactivity to the forefront, UK Active’s report will, I hope, create a paradigm shift. Getting the UK’s population active must be a priority: we must ‘turn the tide’. And we must do so without fixating on our waistlines and dress sizes. Exercise has too long been mis-sold to us, not only by the media, but also by the multi-million pound weight-loss and diet industry. The key benefits of exercise should no longer be framed in terms of the effect they will have on your body shape and size. Rather, they should be framed in terms of the effect they will have on not only your quality of life, but also your life-span. This is not to say that the issue of obesity in the UK should be ignored; far from it. But address the problem of physical inactivity with our health, rather than our body image, at the heart of the message, and I suspect we will see obesity rates heading in the right direction too. And you never know, we may all just inadvertently find ourselves with legs like Pixie Lott in the end anyway, minus all the body-image angst.

Alexandra Kyrke-Smith

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