Idleness matches smoking in world death rankings

Lack of physical activity now kills as many people as cigarettes, scientists have found. Fully a third of adults do almost no exercise. Is there any way of getting people moving again?

The 2012 Olympics are fast approaching. Hundreds of the world’s fittest and most athletic people have already gathered in London to prepare for the Games, where they will perform extraordinary feats of physical strength and endurance. As always, new standards will be set; old records broken.

But while top athletes have been getting faster and stronger, everyone else is going in the opposite direction. A newly published series of scientific papers has painted, for the first time, a comprehensive global picture of world fitness levels, and the news is not good. One in three adults does not get enough exercise. In Britain, the proportion of dangerously inactive people rises to two thirds.

The health consequences of this inactivity are disastrous. Lack of exercise is linked to heart disease, depression, diabetes and several different types of cancer. Each year, scientists say, it causes one death in every six in the UK, and 5.3 million deaths per year worldwide – on a par with tobacco smoking.

The worst part is, this problem should be really easy to fix. Doctors recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week – just over twenty minutes per day. A person could spend 23 and a half of the 24 hours in a day sitting or lying down and still get enough exercise to be healthy.

So why aren’t more people doing it? The extraordinary spread of modern technology must bear much of the blame. According to new figures, the average person in the UK spends 90 minutes a week on email and social networks, communicates more often by text message or phone than face to face, and spends more than four hours per day watching TV.

The world of work doesn’t help much either. Old fashioned industrial and agricultural jobs were exhausting and often dangerous – but there is a whole new set of dangers in modern working life, spent sitting at a checkout or behind a computer screen.

An uphill struggle

Public health campaigners hope that the newly released statistics will help to turn things around. Getting enough exercise is so easy, they reason, and the benefits are so clear. Surely people can be persuaded to spend just half an hour per day away from their gadgets and screens!

But it may not be so simple. As pessimists point out, the new ‘pandemic’ of inactivity reflects a deep and fundamental social change: people today spend their hours, not in the physical world, but in virtual and fictional spaces on TV and online. Physical bodies, left behind in what internet types dismissively call ‘meatspace’ are neglected. That should be no surprise.

You Decide

  1. Which is better: the physical world or the virtual world?
  2. Is comparing inactivity to smoking just a scare tactic? And would that be a bad thing?


  1. Government health advisors suggest gardening or walking to work as ways to stay active. That won’t work for young people though. Invent a new kind of exercise to appeal to the digital generation.
  2. Why do you think people don’t do enough exercise? List the top three things that get in the way, in order of importance. How would you make it easier for people to get the exercise they need?

Some People Say...

“I have no sympathy for the health problems of lazy couch potatoes!”

What do you think?

Q & A

I walk to school every morning. Surely that’s enough exercise per day?
Actually, it may not be. The recommended exercise levels for children and teenagers are higher than for adults: one hour per day rather than 20 or 30 minutes. According to the latest studies, only a fifth of 13 to 15-year-olds (in Britain at least) get enough.
If only all the time I spend playing video games could count as real world exercise!
It might happen one day. Games devices like the Kinect or the Wii already get players moving. Meanwhile, smartphones and new display technology are bringing gaming further into the physical world. There is already one popular app in which players have to run real miles to escape virtual zombies.

Word Watch

Getting faster and stronger
The official Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. And indeed, thanks to advances in training and nutrition, records that were thought unbeatable forty years ago are routinely smashed today.
On a par with tobacco smoking
Tobacco smoking and inactivity both cause around five million deaths each year. It is important to note, however, that although the total death toll is the same, smoking is significantly more risky for any given individual.
Four hours per day
According to one study, people in Australia who watch an average of six hours per day of TV can expect to die five years earlier than those who do not.
Originating in cyberpunk fiction, the word ‘meatspace’ means the opposite of ‘cyberspace’. While cyberspace is a world of the mind, of shifting online personas and digital connections, ‘meatspace’ is the world of the flesh and blood body.


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