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FOOD TODAY 10/2004

Walk your way to a longer life

Food TodayLifts, buses, cars, motorised scooters, people movers in airports and metro stations, all of these are intended to make our daily life ever easier. These features of the so-called “developed” countries, might be now regarded as potential enemies of our… “silhouette”, as revealed by a recent Eurobarometer survey.

The energy balance

The consequences of an unbalanced diet on our health are familiar to us all. Obesity is high on the public health agenda of many countries. In the United States as well as the United Kingdom, for instance, nearly two-thirds of the adult population are either overweight or obese. Eating a balanced diet can contribute to keeping our weight down. Another effective way to stay trim is to exercise regularly. The key to avoiding weight gain is managing the balance between calories in and expenditure of energy through physical activity.

Public health campaigns have targeted healthy eating and increasing physical activity. Mentalities are now evolving and the notion of reasonable yet necessary effort is gaining more followers. Consumerism such as e-shopping and home delivery has it consequences and contributes to an even more sedentary life and can be “dangerous to your health”.

How active are Europeans?

The results of a Eurobarometer survey conducted in December 2003, in the EU 15 countries among 16.000 people (roughly 1.000/country), sheds light on the phenomenon of physical activity. It shows that a startling 57.4% of the respondents reported no vigorous physical activity in the last seven days and 40.8% of them reported not even moderate physical activity in the same period.

The survey confirms society’s relentless drive towards automation and immobility and identifies the at risk groups. Physical activity varied significantly across age groups: 80% of older people reported no vigorous physical activity in the previous week, while this rate dropped to 43% amongst 15-25 year-olds. More surprising is the difference between genders. One in two men reported no vigorous physical activity in the previous week and two women in three reported likewise.

The North-South divide

Geography also has an effect on levels of activity. Certain countries are singled out for their general lower rates of exercise, namely France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal. On the opposite end of the spectrum, countries from Northern Europe reported higher levels of physical activity: The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany and Luxembourg.

Are these findings due to an absence of appropriate exercise equipment or a lack of social incentive? More than two thirds (70%) of the population surveyed by Eurobarometer admitted that the home environment offers many opportunities to be physically active. But, for most respondents, physical activity is neither associated with leisure-time nor is it perceived as an “environmental gesture” (for instance walking instead of driving).

What can be done ?

Health promotion agencies have responded by spending money on campaigns encouraging people to … walk. The message is generally the same: no need to be a Beckham or an Agassi to be fit, it is just a matter of changing a few bad habits.

In France, a TV and radio campaign described how slippers, a television and a sofa are “high risk activities”. Posters inside buses advised commuters to… “finish the journey on foot”! A British NGO, Let’s Walk to School, has launched a twice-yearly campaign appropriately called “Walk to School Week”. Aside from the obvious physical benefit, the campaign also communicates that most of our urban journeys do not take much more time on foot than by car or on public transportation. These are only a few examples of public health messages which should be emphasised further.

The benefits of physical activity contribute to fighting the problem of obesity. The risks of succumbing to other diseases such as coronary heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, bone diseases like osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, even depression, can be mitigated thanks to regular physical activity.

One final reason to leave the transportation at home and walk to the local market for fresh vegetables: it saves on the wallet.

More information :

Terms used in this article
Coronary heart disease
Physical activity
Public health
The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is a non-profit organisation which communicates science-based information on nutrition and health, food safety and quality, to help consumers to be better informed when choosing a well-balanced, safe and healthful diet.

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