The Lazy Reporting on the Inactive

Posted: 18th July 2012

I woke this morning to a news item about physical inactivity causing more preventable deaths in the UK than smoking and my twitter feed has been alive with commentary on it all day. A new report has highlighted the health risks of remaining inactive and published its findings in time to coincide with the Olympic build up.

As a massive advocator for sport and physical activity I think it's brilliant that it has been on the major news agenda over the last 24 hours. It's an issue which needs to be closer to the national conscious but the chance of starting a great public conversation about getting our nation moving has been in my opinion wasted.

Did you know that more than two thirds of us are not doing enough activity to benefit out health? You didn't? Really? Well let us inform you, and once we've finished filling you with fear you can reach for your trainers and start sweating your way through 150 minutes of physical effort each week. Forever. Got it?

You would have to have lived in a cave for the last couple of decades not to know that being fit improves your health, and sitting on your bum all day doesn't. People aren't inactive because they don't know what the consequences would be, there are many levels of psychological, habitual, social and environmental influences at work. Does reminding people of something they already know make them more likely to change? Does telling people an arm-length list of facts and data on how many millions this, how many minutes that, how much percentage more likely of the other, light a fire of motivation within us all? Unlikely. Can you imagine 5 million people in a line? I can't. Does the fact that one in ten deaths from a range of cancers appears to be as a direct result of inactivity make you want to jump off the sofa? I think if we individually understood the actual health risks of being inactive we'd probably take our chance, sit quietly and enjoy a cup of tea.

This kind of data makes sense when taking a population view and it needs to be addressed because these conditions not only cost the NHS a fortune to treat but there's the overwhelming personal suffering and misery they bring too. It's a serious issue, but banging on about disease risk is almost meaningless to individuals. We have emotional biases that get in the way of us associating our poor lifestyle choices with any potential negative health consequences and a fundamentally poor grasp of the numbers when it comes to personal risk.

I can imagine the press release which was sent by the Lancet about this latest study. It's purpose was to draw attention to their work and it was a success. But it was played out so predictably it was barely news and I doubt it will have had any impact at all on the activity levels of our nation

It felt somehow lazy. Anchor reporters stood in their nearest gym talking to dazzled people who rambled on about how many minutes each week they worked out and why it was so important to them for their long-term health - they were about 20 years old and would have offered pension advice too if asked I'm sure. The news studios turned out a sweet list of doctors, cardiologists and policy makers who continued to mention the magical 150 minutes and talk about disease and suffering. Did I mention the 150 minutes thing?

The people who respond to these kind of negative, data-driven, long-term health beatings have long ago reached for their pumps. To attract the rest of the nation to want to move we need to throw a new approach into the mix. Marketers and psychological researchers have known for a long time that people have a set of traits and preferences, certain types of message that they respond better to. Our government has a behavioural insight team; they are sitting at the table with the big corporates with all their consumer understanding from their so called Responsibility Deal. There are brilliant pieces of work coming from organisations such as the New Economic Foundation that lay out what we know about human motivation and decision-making and how to use it practically, yet we still seem to be churning out the same dry message and standing back in shock when no one appears to bat an eyelid.

I recently saw a page on an NHS website designed to promote physical activity to the public. It started by quoting studies, with respective authors and dates, about how they know the links between inactivity and a very long list of diseases and other nasty things. Next they had a few items from their local strategy and action plan (yawn!) followed by a paragraph on motivation to become more active... a dictionary definition of motivation. Oh please! At least most people won't have seen it because they won't have bothered reading that far.

If you could bottle the great benefits of being active it would be a miracle product. It's the best medicine, the best anti-depressant, the best confidence builder, the best weight management tool, the best beauty treatment, the best energiser, the best buzz generator, the best pride generator, the best sleeping pill... Please let's start talking about what people really want. You catch more bees with honey than vinegar right?


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