It's estimated that 1.5 billion people around the world are so inactive that they are at greater risk of everything from heart disease to diabetes, cancer, arthritis, depression and even dementia.
Daily activity used to be an integral part of daily life, but humans are now more static and sedentary than ever before. Peter Walker is the political correspondent for The Guardian in London, and a regular commentator and broadcaster on issues including active living and health. His new book is The Miracle Pill: Why a Sedentary World is Getting it all Wrong.
Walker tells Kathryn Ryan that, after university, he got a secure but ‘incredibly boring’ desk job and, on a whim, gave it up to be a cycle courier.
“From doing nothing, I went to cycling about 60 miles a day, five days a week and the transformation was completely amazing. I’d not been sporty, and I had asthma very badly when I was kid and I never thought of myself as being a physical person.
“But, within a matter of months, it literally was a transformation in my life. I’ve always tried to be active ever since then, not in such an extreme way, but it’s something that’s stayed with me.”
He says that these days he cycles to and from work, but with the UK in lockdown his commute is now from his bedroom to the kitchen table.
“I have to be a bit more creative these days.”
A recent study found that half of middle-aged English people don’t walk for ten minutes or more continuously in an average month.
“It’s basically a global issue. Around the world, around 3 in 10 adults move so little that their long-term health is potentially at risk.”
He says it’s even worse for children and teenagers who are supposed to get at least one hour exercise every day.
“Schools in many countries are too inactive, the kids sit down a long time. It’s a product of all sorts of things, from the rise of screen-based entertainment to the fact that motor traffic makes parents feel scared to let their kids out cycling and walking.
“It’s a big problem because this is a time of life when all sorts of things from your cardiovascular health to your bone density gets laid down.”
Walker says that, if you’re in a job where you have to sit down for long periods, it’s important to get up and move around every 30 minutes or hour.
“Our bodies are designed to move. From the moment homo sapiens emerged for the first time, we’ve been hunting and gathering, our bodies are designed to be in motion and they do shut down really quickly.
“The positive other side of it is that the moment you do start to exert yourself, the benefits are instant.”
He says that many of the things that have made us more sedentary are good changes, for instance washing machines rather than hand-washing clothes. Another big change that has made us less physically mobile is rising car use in the past few decades.
“Even the micro movements people used to do like walking across an office to talk to a colleague is now replaced by emails or chat apps. Even going to the cinema or to the shops can be done from home.
“It’s not that there’s been this outbreak of laziness around the world, it’s just that there are more and more opportunities to not do it.”
Walker says that losing weight through exercise is very difficult to do, and there’s been a fetishization of fitness that is off-putting to some out-of-shape people, but even if we’re not losing weight through exercise, we’re improving our overall health and staving off serious diseases. Essentially, we can be both healthy and overweight.
“A lot of this connects to the stigma of people who have a bit of excess weight and don’t like going to the gym. But studies have shown that it’s better for you overall to be a bit overweight or even quite overweight and active than it is to be a normal weight and to be inactive.”