The epidemic of inactivity and how to tackle it

White chair in empty room

As the nation emerges stiff-limbed and pasty-faced out of what feels like the longest winter ever, it will be time to take stock of our physical condition. The checklist: waistline - larger; muscles - smaller; joints - stiffer; liver - erm, let’s move on, is unlikely to be in positive territory.

Months of cold weather coupled with the prolonged lockdown will only have exacerbated many of the underlying health issues facing the nation.  As we are repeatedly told, one of the most serious causes of many health problems is our tendency to over-eat and under-exercise.  Modern lifestyles only exacerbate the problem, contributing to what experts are calling the ‘epidemic of inactivity’ confronting the nation. 

Research by Sport England suggests that during the pandemic our activity levels have plummeted leading to concerns about related health concerns, heart disease, diabetes, even cancer.  While the Sport England study focuses - quite rightly - on falling participation levels in organised sport or exercise, there is also another possibly more insidious issue of inactivity to have emerged during the crisis, what is being called “incidental activity”.  

The lockdown means that for many of us the commute to work is now no more than a few brief steps from the kitchen to the spare room.  Attending a meeting is little more than logging on to the next Zoom call and leaning back in our chair. Shopping is a trip to the front door to pick the bags dropped off by Ocado or any number of other delivery services.

These changes brought on by the lockdown are, or course, no more than extreme examples of something that was already slowly creeping into our lives.  As life becomes more convenient so it becomes more sedentary.  We have responded to this by promoting exercise, but in isolation to our day to day lives, rather than part of it.  We move from our desks, to the sofa to bed barely raising our heartbeats throughout the day.  To compensate for this inactivity, we are encouraged to fit in an isolated period of activity, a run, a session in the gym or a work out on a static bike.  

However, a new book, the Miracle Pill by Peter Walker argues that in creating this separation around what we consider to be ‘exercise’ we have got it all wrong.  Rather than taking time out to get fit we should be building exercise, or simply movement, into our day to day lives.  Cycling to work, taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking instead of driving, and perhaps most importantly, finding ways to avoid sitting down in front of a computer all day - all these things can have massive and almost immediate impact on our health.  The benefits can include lower blood pressure, better sleep, alleviation of depression and stress and dramatically improved longevity.  

How do we build these changes into our lives?  The author suggests little things could make a big difference, setting an alarm clock at 45-minute intervals during work to remind you to get up and walk around, investing in a standing desk, finding a chair that encourages small movements in joints and muscles while you are sitting.

The most important thing though is to try and embed any activity into your routine.  There are products on the market that are designed to help with this, workout chairs, exercise machines that sit under your desk and allow you to undertake gentle workouts while working, there is even something called ‘chairobics’ - a series of exercises that can be carried out from an office chair.

Like so much to do with exercise and fitness the key is not so much what you do, but in the fact of doing something at all.  The key is finding something that works for you and then sticking with it.