The Last Word
THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE
Robert Matthews discusses the benefits of exercise
“DESPITE THE RELENTLESS FOCUS ON WEIGHT, IT’S OUR LACK OF FITNESS THAT’S LIKELY TO DO US IN”
Our ancestors had a great way to boost morale at this time of year. Just when days are literally at their darkest, at the time of the winter solstice, they’d have a huge celebration, and eat themselves rigid.
The exact timing may have slipped a bit, but what we now call Christmas is still a time for blowouts. What has changed is our attitude towards it. When we muster the courage to get on the bathroom scales a week later, we’re appalled to find that 500g of chocolate has somehow turned into 3kg of body fat.
Everyone knows what we have to do: get the weight off, and keep it off. After all, research has shown beyond doubt that getting fat is a recipe for an early grave. But it’s now becoming clear there’s a far more serious health threat that many of us should fix first: a lack of physical activity.
Despite the relentless focus on weight, it’s our lack of fitness that’s likely to do us in. Amazingly, a recent European-wide study found that inactivity is responsible for twice as many deaths as obesity.
Fortunately, there’s some good news. Research has also shown that our risk of everything from heart disease and stroke to dementia, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers plunges by at least 30 per cent with just a bit of moderate exercise each day. Indeed, the effect is so dramatic that the prestigious Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AOMRC) recently described physical exercise as a “miracle cure”.
The trouble is, getting the benefits is not as easy as popping a pill. According to official guidelines, it takes 150 minutes a week of getting a bit breathless and sweaty for the miraculous benefits to appear. And for many people that’s 149 minutes more than they want to devote to it. It doesn’t have to take up so much time. There are get-fit-quick strategies like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which cram a lot of activity into just a few minutes a day. But all this conjures up images of chubby types leaping on their new exercise bike and dying of a heart attack 30 seconds later. That’s why even staunch advocates of fitness programmes say you should see your doctor before starting. Cue finger-wagging by the AOMRC – not at us, though, but at doctors.
Everyone knows that, unless you’re blessed with iron self-discipline, after a few wet days or late nights our exercise routines tend to fall apart. Those studies revealing the benefits of exercise all had scientists constantly monitoring their patients to make sure they stayed the course. But already hard-pressed family doctors are hardly in a position to set up and monitor fitness programmes for their patients.
Not good enough, says the AOMRC. The benefits are simply too big for the medical profession to ignore: “Exercise is a miracle cure too often overlooked by doctors and the people they care for”.
All this would doubtless have baffled our ancestors. They’d struggle to understand why we fret about putting on a bit of extra weight while ignoring our fitness level. For them, being fit was literally a matter of life and death – not least because it determined whether they got to eat at all.
Happily, we no longer have to catch our Christmas dinner. But it’s becoming clear that unless we walk rather than sleep it off, this year’s blowout could be our last.
Robert Matthews is a visiting professor in science at Aston University, Birmingham