Yet more reasons to get sweaty

Even the most determined couch potato no longer has an excuse. It is possible to get the recommended amount of exercise you need to fend off chronic diseases simply by walking around the sofa during the ad breaks. This remarkable tip for improving the nation’s health comes from the August 25th edition of the New Scientist in an article entitled – “The Best Medicine”.

But something much more radical is needed to make a dent in the years of chronic disease that the baby boomers are facing. I’ll be setting out one option at a talk I’m giving on  “10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing” at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival on Sunday September 16h. Here’s  why it’s worth coming.

The article delves into the biochemistry behind the panacea-like effects of exercise. It also reveals just how little you need to do, hence the  benefits of the sofa circuit. According to the American  “Exercise is Medicine” initiative, getting just 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise is enough to reduce your chance of dying prematurely from heart disease by 40 per cent and of developing diabetes by 58 per cent.

 Exercise – worthy but boring

Pretty impressive compared with the preferred drug option, which not only can’t begin to compete with such benefits but come with the all too familiar side-effects. The sofa workout is based on the fact that average TV viewing (at least in America) is an astonishing eight hours a day – plenty of time cover a reasonable distance during the ads.

The lesson the New Scientist takes from this is one that no one could disagree with – we really ought to exercise more. This  puts in in the same category as all those other worthy things we ought to do and almost certainly won’t, such as insulating our home, giving more to charity and doing volunteer work.

But just paying lip service to exercise is unlikely to change as long as the medical profession are seen as the experts on our health – as opposed to when we actually fall ill.  The sophisticated medical approach has been to acknowledge most people won’t exercise and reach for the prescription pad. That’s why one of the key pieces of advice in the “10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing ” is to make staying healthy a life skill – something you have to learn like parenting of keeping track of your finances.

The New Scientist feature comes up with one statistic that shows just what a disaster the sophisticated approach has been. Just over 75 years ago in 1935 there were 15 million people in the world with diabetes and the global population was two billion. Today the population has more than trebled but the number of diabetics has risen to 220 million – an increase of 15 times. Lack of exercise isn’t the only factor – nutrition is probably even more important. But it’s obvious that drugs aren’t going to stem the tide.

Ten years of illness ahead

Global diabetes figures are pretty  abstract so how about this one? If you are a woman aged 65 you can expect to spend the last ten years of your life suffering from one or more chronic diseases. You’ve got 12 more healthy years left before you become a patient. For men the figures are ten years followed by eight.

These latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) were given a positive spin last week because an ONS poll showed people were more optimistic about how long they thought they would stay healthy. Men said until 64 – previously it had been 61. Given that life expectancy is now around 80, that’s not good news – that’s deeply depressing. Expecting to do really badly at something is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And doctors aren’t about to provide a motivational boost in a hurry. Not least because most know little about exercise.  Another recent bit of research found that half of medical students are given no training in the benefits of exercise, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

 Don’t wait for Olympics legacy

So what to do about it? Applying the principles of evidence based medicine would a one place to start. If the evidence for the health benefits is so overwhelming, why is it effectively ignored in a medical context?  The answer has a political dimension and essentially involves putting more resources into public health. But that isn’t going to be a quick fix either if action on the Olympics legacy – promising more school sport while selling off playing fields – is any guide.

So for now that means it’s down to you. “10 Secrets” is the first handbooks designed specifically to provide answers and a plan of action. Come along and find out more.

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