The foreword to a recent report on physical activity states that “if physical activity was a drug it would be classed as a wonder drug”. However, many people see physical activity as starting and ending with weight loss. We still hear a lot more about the ‘obesity crisis’ than the ‘inactivity crisis’. A recent BBC article called for a new focus on ‘fitness not fatness’, arguing that weight-obsessed public health should be paying more attention to understanding and improving fitness. Obesity is, arguably, merely one symptom of an underlying problem – we are not moving enough.
Part of the problem is word association. ‘Fitness’ and ‘exercise’ are connected in society’s consciousness to ‘sport’ and ‘gyms’, and this perhaps opens the door for people to consider that ‘keeping fit’ is a leisure activity or hobby, not an imperative for life itself. ‘Functional fitness’ defined as ‘training the body for the activities performed in daily life’, is perhaps a more useful way to frame the promotion of physical activity.
We are designed to move. Not moving our limbs, using our muscles, and exercising our heart and lungs, leads to a range of health complications that we are only just starting to fully understand.
More importantly, not being able to be active can limit our ability to work, play, travel, and generally be a part of society. This can, over time, lead to mental well-being issues. We know changing lifestyle behaviour is challenging and requires a broad range of interventions. Legislation has been successful in the field of tobacco control, but it’s harder to see how to legislate for greater physical activity levels.
Sustrans, the charity that’s enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day, has worked with Welsh Government in developing and implementing the Active Travel Act (Wales). This new legislation aims to enable more people to walk, cycle, and travel by other non-motorised transport. The Act requires local authorities to continuously improve facilities and routes for pedestrians and cyclists, and to provide maps identifying current and potential future routes. The Act also requires new road schemes (including road improvement schemes) to consider the needs of pedestrians and cyclists when they are being designed.
We at Sustrans think this new legislation is an important step. In particular, considering active travel in road design is key to getting the population moving more. However, if people are going to take up these new and improved opportunities for active travel, greater awareness of the many benefits of activity – and the risks of inactivity – is vital. Physical inactivity is now almost equal with smoking as the greatest cause of preventable disease. It gives such a wide range of additional positive health benefits that a strong case for an increase in spending could be made. Setting aside money to promote and enable greater levels of active travel could be a good place to start.
‘Controlling weight’ is a benefit of being active, but it’s only one of so many. We need to move away from presenting physical activity as just a means to lose weight, and towards promoting it as something that enables an individual to get on with the things they want and need to do. Efforts to increase activity levels in the population should be proportional to the size of the potential health gains. Being active isn’t just about reducing risk, it’s about maintaining the body’s ability to function and to take part in life.