Lizzy Buchan: Long-term fix needed to change attitudes to health

The Scottish Health Survey found physical activity levels have not improved since the Commonwealth Games. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Health Survey found physical activity levels have not improved since the Commonwealth Games. Picture: John Devlin

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The annual Scottish Health Survey revealed this week that efforts to curb many of the nation’s bad habits have stagnated.

Obesity levels, consumption of fruit and vegetables, and physical activity levels remain largely unchanged over the last decade despite admirable attempts to transform public health.

The Scottish Health Survey found physical activity levels have not improved since the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Jane Barlow

The Scottish Health Survey found physical activity levels have not improved since the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Picture: Jane Barlow

Failure to improve exercise levels is particularly disappointing in the wake of the wildly popular Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, which many hoped would create a surge in sport uptake.

The survey revealed that fewer children were doing more than the recommended 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week since the Games, as the figure fell from 76 per cent in 2014 to 73 per cent last year.

Among adults the statistics were not much better, sitting around 63 per cent since 2012.

Many good things did come out of the Commonwealth Games and it would be unfair to expect a widespread and profound change to the nation’s character from a single such event.

The London Olympics in 2012 also failed to bring about this sort of long-term change.

In Scotland, consumption of fruit and vegetables is still woefully poor, with 7 per cent of children eating no fruit or vegetables at all.

Average waist sizes are growing bigger too and two thirds of Scottish adults are already overweight or obese.

There were some snippets of good news within the 300-page document, mainly focusing on the reduction of smoking around children and a small decline in the proportion of smokers.

But this was a ray of sunshine struggling to break through a very cloudy sky.

We must not accept these facts as normal, tied into the stereotype of Scotland’s poor health.

None of these health issues are intrinsically Scottish.

Yet there are complex and deep-rooted issues at play here, such as historic deprivation and geographical challenges, which must inform policy decisions.

Most people know the perils of smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise, but it is more difficult to make a step change in their habits.

Health professionals often talk about the rather wordy concept of ‘health literacy’ - i.e. how much you understand and engage with your own health.

If someone is unemployed, disenfranchised and mistrustful of authority then how can you get them to go to breast screening?

Among the wider public, how can you get people to be excited about walking or eating an apple?

Trying to increase sports take-up has not worked but the summer’s Pokemon Go craze shows you can get people excited about being active without being on the football pitch.

Sadly crazes just do not cut it when it comes to public health.

What is needed is long term investment and tough conversations around what works.

Making it easy to be healthy has to be a starting point, so ensuring there are safe places to play or exercise outside for free is an important step.

Efforts to consider marketing of junk food, point of sale advertising and a sugar tax are also welcome, as its clear that the current system of huge portions, unhealthy snacks and buy one get one free is no good.

We all need to take some ownership over our own health, as rising obesity levels are already placing a serious strain on the NHS.

A heavy burden that it may not be able to bear.

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