Physical activity: the wonder drug we don’t bother taking
The last 50 years have made our lives remarkably easier. We can now achieve more with a few clicks of a finger than we ever could have done in hours spent dashing around town. Add in the general shift away from manual jobs towards office or desk-based work and you’ve got a big increase in total sedentary hours compared with just a few decades ago. Government estimates suggest that we are now over 20% less active than we were in the 60s, and at current pace that figure could rise to 35% by 2030. To get an idea of the scale of the problem, guidelines around the world recommend 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five times a week, but over a quarter of the population in the UK fail to rack up 30 minutes in total over the course of a week.
This dangerously low level of physical activity is putting a large number of people at substantially greater risk of a whole host of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Which all adds up to a major burden on global health. An international study published in the Lancet estimated that physical inactivity is responsible for 9% of all premature deaths worldwide. Eliminating this inactivity would theoretically add an extra eight months to the life expectancy of the world’s population.
It’s no surprise that the impact is financial too. The annual cost of physical inactivity to the economy of Europe is estimated to be over €80bn – more than the entire world spends on cancer drugs each year.
Too often, exercise is only mentioned in relation to weight loss. However, a long-term Europe-wide study found that roughly twice as many deaths are due to physical inactivity as are caused by obesity alone.
It’s now clear that the benefits of physical activity go way beyond helping maintain a healthy weight. Just a small dose of regular exercise can benefit a huge range of conditions – everything from dementia to cancer. So much so, in fact, that an analysis of over 300 separate studies published in the BMJ determined exercise interventions to be just as effective as some drug treatments in preventing heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
It doesn’t take a daily marathon to reap the benefits of keeping active. In a study of over 600,000 people in Europe and America, tracked for an average of 14 years, those who achieved the recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, five times a week reduced their risk of premature death by 31% compared with those who did not exercise at all.
A regular dose of activity helps keep your body at its best, and, alongside the appropriate medication, can delay the onset of disease and manage chronic conditions. Put simply, exercise is a miracle cure – and one that not enough of us bother to take.
So pull on your trainers and start giving yourself a daily dose of sweat. The benefits are there for the taking, even if it means making your life harder in the short term.