Helping ourselves and society through healthy lifestyle choices

Since COVID-19 has gripped the UK, the importance of exercise and healthy living has been made more apparent than ever. Now under lockdown we have been forced to reconsider and reflect on our lifestyle choices in ways that would have once seemed unimaginable. For those of us used to exercising regularly, it is strange to have such freedoms constrained. We now have to think very carefully about where we go, what we do, and how it might impact those around us. Yet despite these adjustments, the value of exercise and healthy lifestyles has never been more important. Rather than seeing them as simply preparation for an upcoming race or event, it’s now even more apparent how necessary it is to keep ourselves functioning at optimal physical and mental levels.

This also comes at a time when many healthcare professionals are speculating that the population lives in the age of degenerative and lifestyle diseases; where the likes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers, account for a large and increasingly significant burden of observed morbidity. For many, the shift towards a more sedentary way of living and the resultant decrease in regular physical activity is becoming increasingly problematic, and for some, pathological. However, now under lockdown, many of us have been given a snapshot of what direction our health could take if we fail to engage in behaviours that are supportive of our general wellbeing. Here we consider the importance of the decisions we make and the impact that they can have on our health and the wider healthcare system.

Coronavirus changing our priorities

The extraordinary times we find ourselves in has highlighted the invaluable service provided by the NHS. With the current strain to our healthcare systems, its functioning is drawing significant attention and many of us are considering how our decisions might impact an overburdened institution. At present, the government estimates the financial cost of obesity to wider society is £27 billion, whilst treating Type-2 diabetes accounts for 9% of the NHS’s budget. Conditions such as cardiovascular disease have a similar impact, with yearly healthcare costs in England estimated at £7.4 billion, and £15.8 billion to the wider economy. The Centre for Sustainable Health suggest that an inactive person spends 37% more days in hospital and visits their doctor x5.5 more often.

What is perhaps most interesting it that over the last month, reports are coming out in all areas that many people are making better choices with regard to exercise, diet and their mental health as a result of the social measures brought in due to COVID-19. Rather than locking ourselves away and suffering the negative impacts of inactivity and comfort food, many of us who have the means and the time are looking to cook more healthily and exercise more regularly. Perhaps the extreme strains coronavirus is placing on society is forcing many of us to consider the choices we make and to take our overall health more seriously.

Food

Well documented surges in demand have been felt across the grocery sector but one of the more positive trends is the rise in fresh fruit and vegetable sales and a return to local freshly made produce. There are also stories of many people making a return to growing their own produce amidst concerns of shortages and becoming exposed to the virus. Nourish Organics, for example, has seen a 30% increase in demand for its organic vegetable boxes whilst Riverford and Abel & Coe have also reported similar increases.

Diet is important regardless of your activity levels, and has a significant bearing on your wider health that has historically contributed to the rise in the likes of obesity and Type-2 diabetes. There is an evolving and worrying trend whereby people are making the decision to seek pharmaceutical approaches to addressing health issues rather than engaging in lifestyle and behavioural changes. This is in spite of the fact that many cases can be alleviated in the early stages of progression through non-medical means.

Exercise

Sport England have recently published a study that suggested the majority of adults in England consider exercise to be more important than ever. The new figures show 63% of adults in England say it’s more important to be active now than before coronavirus, whilst 67% thought that exercise was helping them with managing their mental health. These sorts of figures are encouraging, and may hopefully translate in to a greater proportion of the population discovering the benefits of exercise for strengthening their cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, and reducing our reliance on medication and medical intervention to fix lifestyle related diseases.

Yet there is another equally important combined benefit to exercise with regard to mental health, which is a highly relevant subject considering the stresses felt by many at the moment. Mental health issues can either cause or contribute to a wide range of health problems that have a significant impact on both the individual and wider society. Government figures suggest that poor mental health is estimated to carry an economic and social cost of £105 billion a year in England. Exercise is frequently cited as a key contributor to positive mental health, with people often reporting that they feel more content, less anxious and calmer after exercising. Exercise (at any level of intensity) creates an immensely positive feedback loop; by taking control of challenges ourselves without any external help makes us feel more empowered, and more capable as we face and surpass what we perceive to be our limits.

Reducing reliance on our healthcare system

Modern medicine and improvements in sanitation, sewerage and housing have collectively driven huge increases in life expectancy in modern society. In 1900 the average life-expectancy in the UK was just 49 years, whilst in 1980 it had increased to 74 years. Now in 2019 it has been estimated at around 80 depending on your gender.

Part of this increase is down to advancements in medicine, diet and lifestyle, and the accessibility to high quality healthcare. Medicine has come up with many answers but has created it’s own set of problems, with many of us turning to medicine to solve our problems in health. The rises in life expectancy therefore are also accompanied by greater numbers of people experiencing a larger number of diseases in their lifetime. In 2018, a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research found that by 2035 the number of people of pension age diagnosed with cancer would see a 179.4% increase, whilst the percentage of those living with diabetes would see a 118% rise. The lead researcher on the project said at the time that “our model shows that future young-old adults, aged 65 to 74 years, are more likely to have two or three diseases than in the past. This is due to their higher prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity, which are risk factors for multiple diseases.”

We’ve already explored the impact that lifestyle influenced diseases are having on our NHS and wider society, and in the current climate we all need to be aware of the need to take individual action which decreases our reliance on health and social care. The biggest impacts that can be undertaken to start this shift is through our eating habits and more active lifestyles. In fact the NHS has already been acting to encourage healthier lifestyles, through the likes of its NHS Forest scheme, the rise of ‘Green Space’, and exercise prescriptions by GPs for certain healthcare issues rather than medication. In New Zealand, a study into the effectiveness of such prescriptions found that 6-8 months after receiving their ‘green prescription’, 63% of patients were more active than they were before and 46% had lost weight.

Making the change

NHS physical exercise recommendations suggest that weekly exercise should include strengthening activities that works all the major muscles at least 2 days a week, and at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week. For some this can of course seem daunting, and building up to this through a range of activities that an individual enjoys is key. Understanding the wider (and often complicated) picture surrounding food and lifestyle choices can also add extra considerations, which can be a barrier to some. Professional advice is always available to those that can afford it, but the excellent NHS Live Well site is a free resource and a good place to start reading information regarding health and exercise.

Whether you’re looking for advice on how to improve, or just starting out on the journey, there is a huge amount of support out there to help people take the first steps towards healthier living such as the hugely popular Couch to 5k. At a time when we and our healthcare system are both under pressure, making these changes now will have both an immediate and long-term impact that can have wide reaching ramifications for ourselves and society around us.

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