Wednesday 21 February 2018

Using inactivity as currency is bad for the body politic

Let’s not adopt failure as a metric, or inactivity as a currency.
Let’s not adopt failure as a metric, or inactivity as a currency.

Conor O'Hagan

On January 31 this year the UK government, or one of its many tentacles, published a document that has a lot to say about the state of that neighbouring and sometimes worryingly influential nation vis-à-vis exercise and health.

Turning The Tide of Inactivity is the work of ukactive, a body of indeterminate capitalisation charged with addressing the alleged growth of slothfulness that threatens the UK's fabric.

Turning the Tide is the usual mix of the stunningly obvious and the worryingly confirmed (it puts numbers on a lot of things we don't like talking about). In terms of the usual forewords, introductions etc, it is presented jointly by Sebastian Coe and the ominously handled Charles Stalker.

The headline finding of Turning The Tide of Inactivity is this: 12.5 million people in England fail to achieve 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week in a 28-day period, even though they can do it in three 10-minute bites. But the real sting is in the way the report regionalises inactivity; identifying the local authorities with lowest and highest levels of 'inactivity'.

I can't claim to have interviewed proponents of small government in the preparation of this column, but I'm fairly sure this sort of thing sends shivers up and down their spines, because it attempts to make discretionary physical activity a political act.

There's more than a whiff of 1984 (or is it Victorian values?) in the coining of this new currency – inactivity – and its identification with social deprivation. The implied image of sofa-bound residents of Benefits Street is unmistakable. There's no doubt that something must be done, and that in the British context, it's the local authorities that must be doing it.

One of the document's key findings goes like this: "Reducing physical inactivity by just one per cent a year over a five-year period would save local authorities £1.2bn (€1.4bn)." Another: "The most inactive local authorities have on average a third fewer facilities than the least inactive areas." Bingo; inactivity has been politicised; not that subtly, either.

And because walking, for reasons of efficacy, economy and accessibility will always be the public policymaker's tool of first choice, the simple beauty and pleasure of a walk in town or country will now be drafted into the unending war between central and local government in Britain.

Inner-city authorities which fail, as they will, to whip their welfare-soaking residents into jaunty physical activity have once more been identified as the authors of their own misfortune, which was probably the idea in the first place.

Please, Ireland; let's not go there. Let's not adopt failure as a metric, or inactivity as a currency. Let's not be tempted to beat each other over the head for the perceived iniquity of sloth.

If I have ever implied, in this column, that we who do are in any way better than those who don't, I recant and withdraw. I only ever meant to say that I believe walking is the most enjoyable, easiest and most effective way for most of us to improve our health and quality of life. Some of the finest people I know do next to nothing, and I wouldn't have it any other way, for all that I cajole.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine.

Irish Independent

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