The Last Word


BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents -

Robert Matthews dis­cusses the ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise


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

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