NH21 Weekly comes straight from the top this week, as the World Health Organization releases its report into a global decline of physical activity, and the direct links of sedentary living to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as stroke, diabetes, and cancer. (1)

According to the report, 23% of adults and a staggering 81% school-going adolescents are not active enough; and notes that “getting people to move more is a key strategy for reducing the burden of NCDs.”

Quite whether this “burden” is on the part of the unfortunate child laying the foundations for a lifetime of unnecessary ill-heath, or on the healthcare systems tasked with caring for them once they are sick (see NH21 Weekly “NHS woes” from January 20th, 2017) is not clear.

In any case, WHO; which was established in 1948 as a specialised agency of the United Nations concerned with international public health, has set the rather modest goal of reducing these figures by 10% over the next 8 years; when presumably 71% of school children not being active enough would be deemed a success!?!?

Physical, Mental and Emotional Health

A recent educational report from the BBC’s Judith Burns found that “almost two-thirds of children worry all the time.” (2)

The cause of their anguish is commonly school work, plus the well-being of family and friends; yet the deeper concern is that many of these children find once they start worrying they cannot stop, and do not know what to do with themselves when worried.

65% of boys, for example, attempt to calm themselves by playing computer games; more a distraction than a solution, and one that is likely to perpetuate the cycle of inactivity.

It is well established by science (and sheer logic) that during exercise the body releases chemicals called endorphins, that interact with receptors in the brain that reduce the perception of pain and trigger positive thoughts and feelings. (3)

Exercise is recommended by medical authorities such as the US National Institutes of Health as a therapeutic protocol for treating stress, anxiety and depression disorders; themselves non-communicable diseases of the mind.

Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by the thought an exercise regime, due to the perception of not being fit enough to even start, and the misguided notion of ‘no pain no gain’ that is promoted by those who confuse ‘peak sporting performance’ with ‘optimal health’ – two distinctly different concepts as unlike as the proverbial chalk-and-cheese, and the subject of future NH21 Weekly musings.

WHO rightly assert that “inactive people should start with small amounts of physical activity, as part of their daily routine, and gradually increase duration, frequency, and intensity over time”-  as well as verifying several important points:

  • Physical activity reduces the risk of disease.
  • Regular physical activity helps to maintain a healthy body.
  • Even moderate physical activity brings benefits.
  • All healthy adults need to be physically active.
  • Some physical activity is better than none.
  • Supportive environments and communities help people to be physically active.

It starts at home

For inactive adults one can be compassionate regarding fears and anxiety around exercise. Allowing for personal choice in all things, one might also leave them alone if they simply prefer a sedentary life and have no concern for their own health.

For the guardians of minors however, there are valid questions of due-care and accountability to consider. Anybody who has ever witnessed an infant learn to walk will know that within a few short weeks, most children go from the inability to move independently to the inability to stay still at all.

Physical activity is an innate, unlearned, normal characteristic of being alive. Take a child to the park and they will invariably rediscover the joys of physical movement and the fun of climbing trees, swimming in rivers and chasing birds.

Sedentary lifestyle then, is a learned behaviour, one that is cultivated over time, through regular practice and over-exposure to TV, computers and such.

Naturopathic medicine teaches that our level of wellbeing is, to a large extent, dependent of how we choose to live, including our environment and our attitudes. Recognizing this may mean changes in diet, occupation, environment and routine wherever possible or appropriate.

The World Health Organization’s report is startling in itself; but more so is the need to produce it at all. That global society has willingly stopped moving to the point of developing chronic ill-health, is an absurd reflection on our supposed advances as a species.

WHO recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily for 5-17 year olds, and an extremely modest 150 minutes a week (30mins daily Mon-Fri) for people 18–64.

They are also realistic enough to know that gymnasiums aren’t to everybody’s liking, and include activities such as playing, walking, household chores, gardening, and dancing among their suggestions of how to reach this humble target.

NH21 wonders if 30 minutes of household chores are really enough to ward off diseases of sedentary living; but is happy that it is no longer perceived as ‘quackery’ to suggest there is a link between personal choice and personal health.

WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Is such as state truly possible in our modern world, you might ask?

Go for a 30 minute walk, you may just find out.

References:

1: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/physical_activity/en/

2: http://www.bbc.com/news/education-38861155

3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6091217