Oh no, here we go again! Three weeks of wall-to-wall patriotism, shot through with vile diseases, even viler drug cheats and ads for the corporate partners. Junk food and cars, massive polluters and a sofa store. Yes, Team GB has an official cider supplier. For God’s sake.
But it’s worth it, because watching the Olympics gets us into physical activity. Doesn’t it? Really? Oh.....
The Lancet speaks up on physical activity
In the run-up to London 2012, The Lancet devoted an issue to physical activity, illustrating the scale and cost of the epidemic of inactive lifestyles and addressing how we should act. The introduction was so good I’m sampling the whole first para here:
This Series on physical activity is not about sport and it is about more than just exercise. It is about the relationship between human beings and their environment, and about improving human wellbeing by strengthening that relationship. It is not about running on a treadmill, whilst staring at a mirror and listening to your iPod. It is about using the body that we have in the way it was designed, which is to walk often, run sometimes, and move in ways where we physically exert ourselves regularly whether that is at work, at home, in transport to and from places, or during leisure time in our daily lives.
Since 2012, the evidence about the impact of physical inactivity on our health, and its cost to our societies, has hardened. So today we are launching the second Lancet Series on physical activity. Salient fact: Physical inactivity costs the global economy over $67.5 billion a year. Yes, $67.5 billion!
In these four years, the research effort has expanded and grown more specialised – see iConnect for example – and global expert collaboration is now much stronger. ISPAH, HEPA Europe, GoPA – check them out ….. and why not join?
Policy lags behind the evidence
But governments and policy makers have not kept up. Sporadic programmes of physical activity promotion and attempts to tailgate major sporting events are unlikely to have any lasting effect when the environment constantly suppresses physical activity.
Few politicians really understand physical activity. They don’t see the huge economic and social gains to be made from truly cross-governmental action. Few see the win-win-win of, for example, transport policies that cut roadbuilding costs, reduce carbon, make the air cleaner and the roads safer while at the same time saving healthcare costs and improving children’s and adults’ performance at school and work.
Let the Olympics run their course. Some of the winners will be clean. If more Big Macs get sold, well, stuff happens, and the focus will move on to 2020. While that is happening let’s develop and implement really effective policies and programmes to reverse the decline in physical activity and tackle all the associated non-communicable diseases.
What are the next priorities?
Here are some thoughts for what researchers and advocates could usefully do:
· Study what’s hard to study, not just individual-focused interventions in easily segregated groups. We should have measured the physical activity impact of introducing the London Congestion Charge . Let’s trial a car-free town.
· Answer the question: is it possible to raise and sustain physical activity without making our environment activity-friendly? (Answer, I can tell you now, is no!)
· Identify which interventions, environmental as well as behavioural, produce lasting increases in activity among the most inactive, who can benefit the most.
· And see which offer best long-term value for money.
· Stop using language that implies physical activity promotion is all individual-focused and sport-related; don’t call people ‘participants’ or speak of ‘sport and physical activity’; don’t prioritise active recreation over regular activities like active commuting or gardening.
· Count the co-benefits, dammit! Interventions like active travel programmes also cut carbon, toxic air pollution and noise, reduce road danger and congestion. Make sure the value for money comparisons take this into account.
And here is one for government:
· Invest in proportion to the scale of the problem. Stop the ridiculous games-playing over active travel investment and bring it in line with European best practice.