Just as Britons start greeting visitors descending on London for the Summer Olympics, news this week will either have them leaping off the couch to get moving — as Olympic sponsors such as McDonald's have been urging folks to do — or slump back in despair and reaching for another handful of crisps.
Apparently the 60 million good citizens of the UK are the, well, fattest in Western Europe, and when London was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics back in 2005, officials pledged to use the Games as incentive for 2 million Britons to increase their physical activity by the opening ceremonies.
“When the torch is lit July 27," writes the Associated Press, the U.K. "government will not only have failed, it will have backed away from its pledge entirely. Last year, the U.K. quietly dropped its aim to get 1 million more Britons into sports; the pledge to get another 1 million people more active through things like biking or walking to work has also been scrapped.”
LOCOG's strategic plan and promise to the IOC included free school sports programs have fallen by the wayside, according to AP — a victim of Europe’s debt crisis, which also caused the slashing of adult programs such as free swimming for Londoners. But let's be realistic, TV viewers won't relate to elite athletes at the top of their game any more than they would watching Hollywood stars on the red carpet.
“The Olympics do inspire people, but there is no evidence there are increased physical activity levels afterwards,” said Bill Kohl, director of the physical activity epidemiology program at the University of Texas School of Public Health, to AP. “Most people realize they will never be (track star) Usain Bolt."
Kohl has authored a paper, published in The Lancet medical journal, to coincide with the Olympics, describing low levels of global physical activity a “pandemic.” Another study in The Lancet (from which The Economist created a global map of sloth) argues that a lack of exercise is now responsible for as many deaths as smoking, and estimates that about one-third of adults are not doing enough physical activity, causing 5.3m deaths a year.
“For the individual, it is certainly more dangerous to smoke than to be physically inactive,” Kohl commented. “But on a population level, the impact of physical inactivity is equal to smoking.” One big surprise: “America does not live up to its sluggish reputation. Six in ten Americans are sufficiently active, compared with less than four in ten Britons.”
Another issue as the global obesity epidemic comes into focus is all that TV viewing in the first place.
A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity connects a child’s TV viewing and eventual leg strength (or weakness), as well as wider waists. "Watching more television in early childhood forecasted lesser performance on a test of explosive muscular strength in later childhood," reports the Los Angeles Times on the study. "This suggests that for some children, excessive television exposure was associated with the experience of a substantial level of impairment."
"Children who watch more television are more likely to develop poor dietary habits, sleep disturbances, and become obese," the study said. "Because it represents a sedentary activity which takes time away from other more physically demanding pursuits, the amount of time children spend watching television in early childhood raises concerns over potential consequences for later physical fitness during the school years."
One example of successful intervention by authorities is Ciclovia in Bogota, Colombia, a traffic-free streets initiative every Sunday to help its seven million plus population get physical. Research reports that close to one million residents now walk around on a Sunday, a fifth of whom say they would be inactive were the ban not in place.
Pedro Hallal, Federal University of Pelotas, lead researcher in the Lancet study says, "With the upcoming 2012 Olympic Games, sport and physical activity will attract tremendous worldwide attention. Although the world will be watching elite athletes from many countries compete in sporting events... most spectators will be quite inactive.”
Can the digital revolution find a way to help people be active – or is it only our texting, eating digits that are getting more rigorous work-outs?
[image at top: McDonald's UK London 2012 Mascotathon]