Inactivity v obesity

‘I experienced first-hand the dangers of inactivity then the benefits of becoming more active.’

Our Lay Adviser Stephen Morrison raises the issue of physical inactivity versus obesity, following his attendance at one of  the key events for Sport and Exercise Medicine this year.

You cannot open a newspaper or turn on the television without being reminded of the cost of obesity, but it is physical inactivity that is the real blight on the nation. It is physical inactivity that contributes to more deaths than the combined risk factors of smoking, obesity and diabetes (smokadiabesity).

This was the message at the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh Sport and Exercise Medicine Hot Topic Symposium last month. I was present there, primarily, as a Lay Adviser to the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine, but also as someone who has experienced first-hand the dangers of inactivity and then the benefits of becoming more active.

For most of my life I have been overweight. For a third if it I was morbidly obese. During my overweight years, I proclaimed, to anyone who would listen, that I was a “fit fat” guy. I did not smoke and I did not drink alcohol often. I simply liked to eat. I also liked to walk, I could play football and badminton while I was relatively healthy and generally happy. I was in fact possibly twice as healthy as someone who was of normal weight, but unfit, according to Sir Harry Burns and keynote speaker Professor Steven Blair. They both explained that physical inactivity was a bigger concern than obesity. That rather than focusing on how much we eat, we should focus more on how much we move. Over the last few decades our calorific intake, via the food we eat, has not increased significantly, although plate sizes might suggest otherwise, while the energy we expend daily has reduced considerably. Yes, gym memberships are increasing and events like 2012 and the Commonwealth Games have captured the nation’s attention, but throughout the day, the majority of us of sitting more and doing less. We are no longer hunter gatherers, we are not farming our own food and some of us are not even collecting it ourselves from the shops. For many, life has become easier and more sedentary. For many, this has led to us becoming obese and unfit. For myself, this saw me grow to over 25 stone, and become increasingly reclusive and unhealthy. I was no longer fit and fat, I was moribund and morbidly obese.

So why should we try and sit less and make our days harder, not easier? Professor Nanette Mutrie was the next speaker and she explained the benefits of physical activity. On top of losing fat, being more active can assist the prevention of Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease and Strokes while research has shown that exercise interventions can bring lasting benefits to breast cancer survivors. And it does not have to be high intensity interval training. Simply adding 10 extra minutes of walking every other day for a month can help, while 150 minutes of exercise each week is the recommended prescription of exercise for adults. Even as we age, physical activity can help our cognitive skills while it is shown that exercise can help elevate our moods as much as it can raise our heart rates. As Professor Mutrie professed, almost everything that gets worse as you get older, gets better with regular physical activity.

To this I can personally testify. As I neared my 40th year and started walking more and sitting less, I got fitter and lighter, losing 12 stone and seeing conditions such as sleep apnoea and high blood pressure disappear. Back and knee pain also reduced as I started running, while being active has also introduced me to new activities and new people, which in turn has made me feel happier, more alive and more likely to sustain my new lifestyle. Even before I attended the Symposium I appreciated the value of physical activity, however the speakers further reinforced my beliefs.

One of which is to stop simply telling people to be more active, to maybe stop piloting small initiatives and instead roll out national campaigns that engage, empower and encourage people to be more active. To provide more evidence and examples of the benefits of physical activity. To celebrate not just the physical benefits, but also the impact on mental wellbeing and family life. To do this, we need to reach out to and inspire everyone, especially those which research shows are the least active. We need to work together and we need to do it now.

If you are reading this (and have come this far), you are most likely already invested in physical activity and might be asking what more you need to do? If you are a medic or other health professional, the plea from the exercise medicine content of the Symposium is to make every interaction with patients count. Make physical activity a priority and not an after thought that you can’t discuss with patients due to time, although we all appreciate that there are circumstances when a patient’s priority will be on more immediate needs. Make physical activity an option for all and help everyone move more and live more.

Stephen Morrison, Lay Adviser to the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK


Follow Stephen @HowManyMiles_

Written by Stephen Morrison