Nice ideas alone will not get us moving

Group of cyclists waiting for the start of their ride, by SabrinaWe all need much more encour­age­ment to do much more walk­ing and cyc­ling. So says a hefty new set of guidelines pub­lished this week from the government’s health advis­ory body NICE (the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence). This should be music to my ears, because as a spe­cial­ist fit­ness instructor, I spend my life cajol­ing, mar­shalling, and even bul­ly­ing some very unfit people into doing just a little more walk­ing and cyc­ling.

But oh, the dis­ap­point­ment. As I waded through the 126-​page report, I could feel my pos­ture droop and my shoulders start to hunch. The guid­ance sprays warm words in all pos­sible dir­ec­tions — local coun­cils, vol­un­tary groups, indi­vidu­als, health bod­ies, schools – without any sense of pri­or­ity, urgency or tar­geted ambi­tion. Based on the degree of slouch it induced in me, I can con­fid­ently pre­dict that this report will make no dis­cern­ible dif­fer­ence to any­thing or any­one.

We, a coun­try­ful of ded­ic­ated slouch­ers, can’t afford such missed oppor­tun­it­ies. As the report acknow­ledges, “only 6% of men and 4% of women achieved at least 30 minutes of mod­er­ate or vig­or­ous activ­ity on at least 5 days” – the offi­cial min­imum dose for basic heart health.

And so much inactiv­ity mat­ters because the cas­cade of life­style dis­eases that fol­low from it – from obesity and high blood pres­sure to heart dis­ease, stroke, dia­betes and can­cer – can be dev­ast­at­ing to live with, and are bor­der­ing on unaf­ford­able for the pub­lic purse to treat.

To reverse the acci­dental health dam­age of a cen­tury in which abund­ance has tri­umphed over effort is going to be monu­ment­ally hard. But it must be done. The only real issue is how much car­rot and how much stick should we be deploy­ing to get our nation off its spread­ing back­side?

NICE – con­trary to its own hon­our­able repu­ta­tion for tough­ness — is stuck firmly in car­rot mode. Of course encour­age­ment is import­ant. It’s what I’m paid for. I worked as a trainer for two years with one cli­ent – hugely over­weight, depressed, a long-​term her­mit in her own home. We star­ted with wheezy five minute walks in her back yard. We blos­somed into glor­i­ous two-​hour round trips. Walking gave her back a life worth liv­ing. But I ser­i­ously won­der whether my twice-​weekly one-​to-​one encour­age­ment ses­sions would ever pass NICE’s value-​for-​money tests. You need an awful lot of encour­age­ment to go even a little way.

Lots of the NICE car­rots are about open­ing up more cyc­ling and walk­ing oppor­tun­it­ies. Impossible to dis­agree with, surely. A few years back I set up a weekly walk­ing group in my local park, prick­ing the coun­cil into grudging and min­imal sup­port for the scheme. We became pop­u­lar, expan­ded to twice-​weekly, and walked for three years, serving a tiny but vital local need. Throughout, the coun­cil remained stead­fastly indif­fer­ent to the scheme, res­ol­utely fail­ing to develop the great little oppor­tun­ity we had cre­ated. Today I could wave NICE’s warm words at them. But they, under a spend­ing cosh and never overly-​keen on their pub­lic health role, will take no more notice now than then. Something stronger is needed.

On Wednesday, as these guidelines emerged, the gov­ern­ment announced it had at last decided to fol­low Scotland’s example and get tough on alco­hol abuse by for­cing prices up. Whether you agree with the spe­cif­ics or not, this is the intens­ity of ini­ti­at­ive that it takes to start to shift not just opin­ions but habits. No one ser­i­ously ques­tions any more the out­law­ing of smokers to pave­ment huddles, but how many can­cer deaths did we need before tak­ing a big stick to cigar­ettes?

How I wish the NICE people had stuck their necks out and really got behind a hand­ful of big ideas that might fire up the phys­ical activ­ity debate. But they didn’t, so here goes. Let’s close all streets con­tain­ing school entrances to all motor­ised traffic for two hours a day. That would give power­ful encour­age­ment to both par­ents and chil­dren to walk and cycle.

Let’s close down all escal­at­ors in town centre pub­lic spaces and con­vert them back to steps. It’s odds-​on that there will be a nearby lift access, which dis­abled people can con­tinue to use. Everyone else gets to use their legs.

Here’s one that will step on NICE’s toes. Instead of merely recom­mend­ing exer­cise as a front-​line ther­apy for mild to mod­er­ate depres­sion, how about remov­ing anti-​depressants from the list of options alto­gether, leav­ing GPs with a pre­scrib­ing choice of talk­ing ther­apies or exer­cise (loads more walk­ing and cyc­ling).

Back in the local park, I can­not see why, along with bed­ding plant dis­plays and poop-​scoop bins, coun­cils should not be required to offer a full seven-​day pro­gramme of walk­ing and cyc­ling oppor­tun­it­ies, all year round, suit­able for young and old, fast and slow.

To change our private habits is just about the hard­est thing any policy-​maker can attempt. Because it’s the hard­est thing in the world for us to do. Thumbs up to the gov­ern­ment for rais­ing the price of alco­hol and with it the value of our liv­ers. Thumbs down, sadly, to NICE for offer­ing a nation sick from too much sit­ting a big pink stick of candy­floss to suck on.

This art­icle was writ­ten by Jane Taylor and pub­lished in the Sunday Express on December 2nd, 2012.

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