By Head of Communications Jak Phillips
“You can’t outrun a bad diet.” That’s what they say isn’t it? Since time began, or at least since Dr Aseem Malhotra acquired a Twitter feed, our sector has often been demeaned and dismissed by this glib platitude.
As a communications professional myself, I can doff my cap and appreciate a great line, but it’s certainly not a blueprint for an effective health strategy. This is an argument which has been regularly trotted out by academics to diminish the power of exercise and to frame public health debate around their focus on obesity.
You don’t need a PhD of your own to see it’s a fundamentally flawed argument. Yes, exercise alone won’t help you maintain a perfect waistline but is that really all we should be worrying about? In a society where physical inactivity is killing twice as many people as obesity (University of Cambridge, 2015) shouldn’t we be embracing physical activity as a public health priority for its other benefits?
How about its ability to prevent 30 per cent of dementia cases, 30 per cent of osteoporosis, radically reduce risk of breast and bowel cancers, not to mention prevent depression, reduce stress and eliminate type 2 diabetes?
As the NHS England CEO Simon Stevens noted at last year’s ukactive Summit, the pharmaceutical industry dreams of discovering a magic pill that is as effective a treatment as physical activity.
We’ve known this for a long time – and health officials are coming around too – but it’s been a long old slog to build the evidence-based case for an active Britain.
ukactive’s seminal Turning the Tide of Inactivity report was undoubtedly a key factor in getting the ball rolling, but it’s been the meticulous work of the ukactive Research Institute – working hand in hand with the sector and partners such as Public Health England – which has really helped this movement to snowball.
A glance at the latest Active Lives statistics tells you our sector still has an awful long way to go before we make physical activity the natural choice for society. But there have been several academic landmarks in recent months which suggest we’re starting to move the dial.
This month saw ukactive CEO Steven Ward take to the stage at the Royal College of GPs’ Annual Conference to discuss the potential for physical activity to transform primary care. To have a leader of our sector addressing the marquee meeting of Britain’s most trusted clinicians would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, and it shows just how far the physical activity movement has come.
There was further validation of our sector among the upper echelons of health policy just two weeks later, when ukactive Health & Wellbeing Lead Kenny Butler co-authored a paper in the prestigious British Medical Journal. The co-authors – NHS Chief Knowledge Officer Professor Muir Gray and Council Member of the Royal College of Surgeons Scarlett McNally – joined Kenny in asserting that social care is a consequence of preventable loss of fitness, not an inevitability. Together, they cited gyms and a range of physical activity opportunities as part of the cure to the long-term conditions that blight our ageing society.
We as a sector are physical activity advocates because it is our area of expertise, but we are pragmatic enough to acknowledge this is one piece of a bigger puzzle. It’s not an adversarial case of inactivity versus obesity, and which is more important.
Only a holistic health strategy that brings together diet, physical and mental health can truly lighten the load on the NHS and this is a topic we will explore in depth at our ukactive National Summit on November 1st. Our sector’s future will be determined by how bold and collaborative we are willing to be in our thinking. At Summit and beyond, we will continue to champion the role of physical activity in this landscape and work with partners across the clinical spectrum to achieve our goal of a happier, healthier, wealthier nation.