Lori Anderson: We clearly need to get moving, for the sake of our health

In today's sedentary world physical activity is a choice not a necessity and it's one many people don't take, says Lori Anderson.

In the past people had no choice but  to walk to get around - a far cry from today when it is possible to exist without ever leaving the house  (Picture: George Marks/Getty Images)
In the past people had no choice but to walk to get around - a far cry from today when it is possible to exist without ever leaving the house (Picture: George Marks/Getty Images)

We are the first generation for whom almost any form of exercise is a choice rather than a necessity and like Bartleby the scrivener, every day an increasing percentage of us say: “I would prefer not to.”

In the past we had no choice in the matter. If we wished to eat, we had to hunt, then sow and harvest, or toil, for until the latter half of the 20th century, all but the most affluent, worked and walked. Today if someone wished to exist by walking no further than their own front door then Amazon and Tesco Direct would be only to happy to make their dreams come true, though the reality would more likely be a physical nightmare. The rest of us are scarcely any better and now use our cars for journeys as short as 200 metres. Modern life has given us every opportunity to avoid exercise and we’re only too happy to take it with dire consequences.

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The current NHS guidelines recommend that we all spend at least 150 minutes, just over two and a half hours, each week engaged in a moderate form of exercise: be it walking, swimming, jogging, cycling as this helps stave off obesity, heart disease, dementia etc. But the disappointing fact is that a survey published last week by NHS Digital revealed that over a quarter of all adults fail to manage even 30 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

Women are even more inactive with 27 per cent failing to take up even half an hour of any type of exercise that is liable to leave them slightly out of breath. This national aversion to exercise combined with our national indulgence for sweet and fatty foods in monstrous proportions has resulted in Britain enduring the second highest rates of obesity in Europe with only Hungary, appropriately, beating us to first place at the continent’s all-you-can-eat buffet.

A consequence of our national interest in over-eating and under-exercising is the staggering rise in Type 2 diabetes. While Type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition in which the body does not produce enough insulin resulting in high blood sugar levels, Type 2 is triggered by excessive body weight combined with a failure to exercise. Sir Muir Gray, the Glasgow born professor and chief knowledge officer to the NHS, argued last week that Type 2 diabetes was not, in his opinion, a “real disease” but a self-inflicted “walking deficiency syndrome” and should be so titled.

As he explained previously: “We now live in a very dangerous environment, for three reasons: the car, the desk job, and the internet. We’ve got a Neanderthal body in a post-Neanderthal world. In the last 50 years we’ve seen medical miracles but our environment is as harmful as it was in the 19th century. We’re waking up now to the public health danger of the environment we live in and the need to build more energy expenditure into daily life. The evidence is very clear.”

While I agree with Sir Muir that we all need to get moving, I’m doubtful over the efficacy of re-naming a medical condition in order to further shame the unfortunate individuals afflicted by it. Yes, it would put a moat of clear and righteous blue water between those with Type 1 diabetes, an accident of birth, and those with Type 2, viewed as eating and slumping their way to ill-health but would this bring comfort to the former and to the latter the required inspiration to change their unhealthy ways?

I’m not so sure and then where would our desire to recategorise illnesses end? Should lung cancer diagnosed in a heavy smoker be re-christened: ‘Smoker’s Folly’? Or gout in the corpulent re-branded as ‘Glutton’s Revenge’?

I will, however, happily endorse Sir Muir’s campaign to get us out of our chairs. In fact only a few minutes ago I cleared a space among my book shelves on which to rest my laptop at an appropriate height in order to finish the rest of this column while standing (ooh me lumbago) and so burn twice as many calories per minute, a still measly two instead of just one if I were sitting. Had I the budget and co-ordination to utilise a ‘walking desk’ which comes with its own treadmill I could be expending a rather smug four calories per minute.

The answer, as in so many aspects of health and fitness, lies in moderation. The moderate consumption of sweet and fatty foods, the moderate use of chairs, cars, buses and trains and finally the moderate, instead of exceedingly rare, use of our feet. We must rely more upon shank’s pony. Phew, now I’m off to sit down.