SCOTLAND’S outgoing top doctor has warned a lack of physical activity is as damaging to health as smoking, alcohol abuse and diabetes combined.
Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns said international research had shown a lack of physical activity was a major risk factor for early death.
Doctors are now being encouraged to do more to help patients become physically active as part of efforts to improve Scotland’s health, a conference will hear this week.
Sir Harry said GPs and other health staff should start giving patients advice on what exercise to do and ways to lead a healthier lifestyle, including what foods to eat and to avoid.
Doctors agreed that exercise plays a key part in improving the nation’s health, but warned that time was often against them when it came to giving fitness guidance to patients.
This week’s meeting at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh will see experts from around the world discuss exercise and sports medicine.
Members of the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine will discuss how the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow can inspire people to take more exercise, and Sir Harry will speak about how physical activity can be brought to the nation.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday ahead of the meeting, Burns said you could not make people become more active – they had to choose to do it themselves. This was often hardest for those living in deprivation, contributing to the nation’s health inequalities.
“For people who find it hard to engage in physical activity, we need to be finding out what the impediments are and helping them deal with that,” he said. “We need to help them get to a place in their minds where they actively choose to be physically active.”
Burns said one way to tackle this would be for GPs to start recording physical activity as they would smoking status and talking to patients about their exercise levels.
He said this kind of activity was vital as research in the United States had shown the combined risk of death from smoking, obesity and diabetes was similar to not being physically fit.
Alan McDevitt, chair of the British Medical Association’s Scottish GPs committee, said there was often too little time in consultations to discuss physical activity with patients.
Dr McDevitt said: “If I could spend ten minutes dealing with your problem and then ten minutes telling you how to exercise and improve your life, that would be fine, but I only have the first ten minutes.”