With government figures predicting that 40 per cent of Scots will be obese by 2030, we look at the latest attempt to activate the nation
The Scottish Government is determined to see Scotland shake off its “sick man of Europe” tag. Earlier this month it pulled out all the stops as a 50-strong dance troupe joined Public Health Minister Shona Robison to launch its Active Nation campaign. The campaign is part of the Commonwealth Games legacy for Scotland and the Government has high hopes that the “inspirational effect” of the games coming to Glasgow in 2014 will motivate Scots to increase their levels of physical activity.
On its website, www.ouractivenation.co.uk, individuals can find out about activities in their area and set their own activity goal – be it to run a 10k or walk to work each day – track their daily progress and meet others who are doing the same. However, it also hopes to send the message that there are lots of different ways to get active. Indeed it stresses that you don’t have to go to the gym if that is not for you; activities like house work, gardening, walking upstairs rather than taking the lift and dancing around the house to your favourite music all count and it is these little changes that can make a big difference.
But how much physical activity should we be doing to stay healthy? The latest guidelines recommend that adults do half an hour of moderate exercise at least five times a week.
However, Dr Jason Gill, co-ordinator of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Diet, Exercise and Lifestyle (IDEAL) argues that a debate is needed about the relevancy and effectiveness of this one size fits all target.
First, he acknowledges the difficulty in setting guidelines on something like physical activity as he says there is a play off between the optimum amount of physical activity and how much people are prepared to do.
He explains: “If you pitch the guideline too high a lot of people won’t do it and it will put people off so it won’t be very effective in improving public health,” he says. “But if you make the guidelines too easy, for example, if you say what you need to do is one minute of exercise per week, what you will find is everyone can do it but it won’t give you a benefit. So with the guideline you are always torn between these two things.” However, he says the problem with a generalised target is that it doesn’t take into account biological differences.
“There is evidence that perhaps different people might need to do different amounts, that is what the biology suggests. In other words, some people might be able to get away with doing relatively little and some people might need to do quite a lot. If the guideline reflects the biology it probably should state that, to some extent. There are certain highrisk groups that probably need to be doing more activity than other groups.” If some people can get away with doing relatively little without falling ill should we be “wasting” limited resources on trying to get them more active, he asks.
“Or should we be focusing our resources on the people who would stand to benefit the most and where you might get the biggest public health gain? That is the argument and I think it is a debate to be had.” While Gill says he welcomes the campaign’s message that physical activity takes many forms, he argues that it is important to make the distinction between sport and physical activity and questions the emphasis placed on the Commonwealth Games.
“I think there is a difference between sport to improve sport performance and physical activity to improve health and I think they are often conflated. I think the evidence is very clear that you don’t need to go out running a 10k to improve your health.” As such, he questions whether seeking to use the Commonwealth Games as inspiration will prove effective.
“I think trying to make activity synonymous with sport, so the idea that the Commonwealth Games coming to Glasgow, the Olympics coming to London are going to make people more active, I’m not sure that that is necessarily the right message.
“It might make some people more active but I think it might put some people off.
There is some evidence that it does. The evidence from the Sydney Olympics was that physical activity didn’t go up, it actually went down slightly. I know that politically it is quite a nice message to say that bringing these big sporting events is going to make people more active, but when you actually look at the evidence there is not really that much to support that.” What it can do is provide a catalyst for a lot of other initiatives to take place at the same time, he says.
“So, for example, the Olympics are coming so we are going to build more cycle lanes. So it might work in that way by introducing a whole host of other initiatives to increase physical activity alongside the sporting event and that can probably work.
“But the act of just bringing the Olympics to London or just bringing the Commonwealth Games to Glasgow, the evidence is that that probably doesn’t work.” This, he argues, is because seeing top athletes such as Paula Radcliffe win a marathon has “zero relevance to the average person.” “They don’t think that that can be me,” he continues. “It might inspire a relatively young person, but it is probably not going to inspire the average person to be more sporty.
Things like the London marathon, seeing the average person doing a marathon is probably more likely to inspire them to do something, seeing someone like them complete an event rather than the elite athletes.” This is a particularly important issue to address, he says because one of the major reasons people give when asked why they don’t do more physical activity is that they don’t see themselves as the sporty type.
Lack of confidence is another obstacle to participation in physical activity, argues Nick Smithers, fathers’ worker, with the family support organisation Circle Edinburgh.
“People might want to do exercise but there is inertia when you haven’t done something for a long time and the thought of doing it is quite hard,” he says. “Once you do it, it can make you feel better but it is just overcoming that mental barrier. People imagine they are much more unfit than they are. They forget you don’t have to be that fit, you can just get going at your own pace.” And while a lot of the focus on physical activity has been related to the need to tackle the obesity epidemic, Smithers argues it is important to also highlight the associated mental health benefits. For example, in a bid to help a group of fathers in Muirhouse become more socially active, Circle established a badminton group, and Smithers says he has watched the fathers grow in confidence and fitness ever since.
“It has been so important for the guys’ confidence,” he says. “They play badminton together every week and then go for a swim.
And they’ve now started playing football together at the weekend. I’ve really seen a big difference in them and they are getting more active with their kids, taking them along to play football on the Saturday.
For those in the group, Smithers says it was just about getting them past that initial hurdle.
“It makes them feel more self-confident and raises their self-esteem, how they see themselves improves so they feel better and want to do more with their kids. Once that initial barrier to doing exercise has been overcome it opens up so many doors.” However, Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Liz Smith MSP argues that a lack of local facilities can prove another obstacle for those motivated to take part in physical activity, arguing that there is a postcode lottery in Scotland in terms of the availability of facilities. In a bid to address this, she says the Scottish Conservatives are proposing to establish a new Sporting Trust to give a funding boost to school sport. While still in the early stages, Smith says that the trust, which is being supported by Scottish rugby star Gavin Hastings, would allow anyone in Scotland to make an application to the independent charitable trust to help provide better facilities or coaching staff.
Smith said the trust would help put sport and PE back at the top of the agenda.
However, while she criticised the Scottish Government for not yet achieving the minimum target of two hours PE per pupil per week, she welcomed the ambition of the Active Nation campaign.
“I think it is important to do anything we can to make ourselves a more active nation and participative nation. You don’t have to be a champion or an Olympian or anything like that to enjoy sport. But again I think it is about improving the grassroots facilities for people to ensure they have that opportunity.” Gill agrees that while it is important to strive to motivate individuals to take responsibility for their health and get active, it is important to recognise that there is also a wider societal responsibility to ensure the infrastructure to facilitate physical activity is in place.
“There is now increasing evidence that how active people are is very much related to how your towns and cities are constructed. If it is easy to walk or cycle from A to B people are more likely to do that. There is pretty good evidence now that you can make a neighbourhood more walk-able or cycleable, for example. If you are not going to ride your bike through the city centre, for example, because you are scared you might get knocked off then people aren’t going to do it, but if you can make it more safe and friendly to ride your bike, if you can have a bike locker and a shower at work and all these things to try and facilitate the activity, I think that will have an effect.
“So I think it does have to go beyond the level of the individual,” he adds. “The individual does have some responsibility but I think there is also a wider societal responsibility to try and get people more active as well.”