September 24, 2008
‘If We Are Determined to Break the Cycle of Inactivity, We Must Develop Motivating Initiatives’
August must have been the most exciting sporting month in our national consciousness in living memory (rivalled only by that marvellous month in 1966).
Our Olympians (and more recently our Paralympians) showed the world that we can be world leaders if we focus on results and have a clear strategy, which is underpinned by a financial and professional commitment by all stakeholders - from the Government to those responsible for managing the implementation of a plan designed to bridge that gap between goal and delivery.
We now need to bring the same focus to swopping our silver medal in the Obesity Olympics (coming second only to the US), for a gold in delivering a successful national public health strategy. However, when trying to improve the health of the nation we must not allow a preoccupation with diets and food management to become the default setting. Diet alone did not shape our world class athletes and our national obsession with the "energy in" side of the health and well- being equation will not solve our obesity crisis.
What we need is a paradigm shift in strategy and a focus on creating a balance between "energy in" (the food we eat) and "energy out" (the exercise we take). Around 50 per cent of the British public are already profoundly inactive, a factor which is set to bankrupt the NHS by 2050 and contribute not just to obesity - which will affect 50 per cent of the population by 2050 - but also over- 20 lifestyle diseases, which include Type 2 diabetes and asthma. Extensive research tells us that the risk of these diseases can be significantly reduced by a regular exercise regime.
If we are serious about changing the behaviours and attitudes towards food and activity among the 50 per centers, then we have to persuade them to be more active and live more healthily. It is not enough to "tell" an overweight or obese person, who is probably moderately or profoundly inactive, to walk up the stairs rather than take a lift or to get off one stop early and walk a little. They will listen but will not hear that sermon.
If we are determined to break the cycle of "inactivity", then we have to develop initiatives that will excite, motivate, kick-start their activity habits and help sustain their new lifestyle. This community needs clear achievable goals that they know, understand and agree to. We have to be there when they fall off their new lifestyle wagon and be there to help them back onto it. We have to understand what their individual emotional and psychological drivers are and play to them. When we teach a child to read we start with the alphabet, then gently migrate them through a series of books of ever increasing complexity. We do not throw Little Dorrit at them and tell them to get on with it. We should use the same approach with someone who is not physically literate. We have to review and cheer their progress and map out their journey in small achievable increments, rather than just tell them to "Use the stairs. Go on. It's good for you."
The Government has already started to use this intervention process. It has earmarked significant funds for a one-year programme designed to get 10,000 16-22 year olds fitter and healthier and, working with the FIA, it plans to roll these out in five local authority areas, across the country. Catalysts like this are vital because just as the National Lottery underpinned the success of our current cadre of world-class athletes, so will investment in the physical health of the nation reap major rewards.
The national assets we have at our disposal include around 40,000 trained exercise professionals who have the experience, the expertise and the desire to work with schoolchildren, adolescents, adults and the over-fifties. We also have over 5,700 leisure centres and gyms that are no more than two miles from almost 90 per cent of the population and a further 10,000-odd "active places", so why are they not fully deployed in the war on obesity and the other lifestyle diseases?
What we therefore need is a prevention-focused national strategy that addresses the "energy in" side of the health and wellbeing equation, as well as the "energy out" side.
However, the solution does not just lie in the corridors of Westminster, but with all of us. Employers have a responsibility to encourage their employees to be more active and lead healthier lives. The spectre of the credit crunch should not force this issue off the corporate agenda, because an active workforce is more productive, more motivated, more loyal and is absent less often. However, we too have a responsibility to ourselves and to those we care for.
This is the holistic approach which should underpin our "2012 Health Legacy" strategy and ensure that we hand that unwanted silver medal to another nation.
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