Scotland has been inhabited for more than 14,000 years. For the vast majority of this time we have been massively physically active, initially to avoid being eaten or to catch food, and more latterly in our day-to-day work.
But in the last 50 years more of us only have to go as far as Asda or perhaps even the chip shop to hunt out food, and are based at desks for our jobs. Life does not force us to be physically active, and we have a choice of whether to do it or not.
So is regular exercise a good thing? Are we safer on the couch watching TV than catching a cold outside. Scientific evidence is now crystal clear, that we are made to move. Without regular physical activity the human body simply does not work as well, and becomes less healthy and less happy.
And it is a serious problem worldwide, as well as for Scotland. Experts from The Lancet label physical inactivity “pandemic” and estimate more than five million people each year die due to inactivity, with Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer stating more than 2500 lives, and more than £660million each year could be saved in Scotland alone if everyone in the country walked/exercised a little over 20 minutes a day.
So how about the stats. The bad news is that if you take exercise regularly then you are more likely to get athlete’s foot. But the better news is you go from being a couch potato to a regular walker or exerciser you are 30 per cent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, or develop type 2 Diabetes or certain types of cancer (particularly breast or colon). And exercise is good for the brain, with dementia and depression 20-30 per cent less likely for regular walkers.
So it would appear to be a compelling argument. If a tablet existed that gave us all the benefits of regular physical activity we would all be clamouring for it, and the health officials would be trying to put it in the water.
But more than a third of us Scots don’t achieve the minimum recommendations of 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of physical activity per week. We are all busy people, but put another way, more than a third of people are failing to limit their inactivity to 165 hours per week.
The picture is brightening. Levels of smoking and alcohol excess in Scotland are going down. As people recognise the huge benefits of regular exercise, the green shoots are appearing, and levels are sneaking up.
The most recent Scottish Health Survey showed a two per cent increase in those hitting minimum criteria in adults, and a four per cent increase for children. In a world where levels are dropping, this is a great start. The good news is that it’s not about running marathons, or extreme sports. There are additional benefits from sport, but the clear messages are that any form of exercise counts. Find something that works for you, and do it regularly.
This can be as simple as walking or biking 15 minutes to and from work five days a week, always taking the stairs, or going to the gym, playing football or sport with friends and generally just finding something you can fit in and enjoy. Fifty-four per cent of calories spent in Scotland each year are spent walking – and it’s amazingly beneficial.
Dogs are a great walking coaches – dog owners live on average five years longer than non-dog owners, and golfers live seven years longer than non-golfers.
The clear message is that regular physical activity can be achieved. Each step is a step to health, and everything counts. If we sit less and move more we are more likely to have a big fat smile on our face, or at least a smile.
And it’s the sort of message we can share, and spread the word on. In a world of great Christmas presents, is there a present we can help someone with that would make them more productive at work or at school, make them happier, and healthier. It’s something we can give ourselves, and help others with.
Let’s sit less and move more!
• Dr Andrew Murray is an Edinburgh-based GP and Leadership Fellow with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and Cruden Foundation. Along with friend Donnie Campbell, he aims to be the first to run across the Namib desert starting next week. Follow him on Twitter @docandrewmurray and www.docandrewmurray.com
ANDREW’S TOP FIVE TIPS
1 Always take the stairs
2 Buy a pedometer. They cost £5, and you can see how many steps you are racking up and set targets
3 Try and walk or cycle to work. Or leave the car ten minutes from work
4 Involve your friends and family. It is easier in a group
5 Check out great websites such as Edinburgh Leisure, World Walking, and 5x50