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Philippa Taylor

How to live longer, healthier and happier

Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at CMF. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

It would be hard to have missed some of the recent glut of news articles on the importance of physical activity for health and wellbeing.  The latest official government press release this week, from Public Health England in partnership with the Royal College of General Practitioners, encourages adults to improve their general health and wellbeing by incorporating brisk walking into their days.  This was same day that the WHO published its own promotion of physical activity, the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity and Health 2018-2030.

This is a major issue for society today.

A report  in 2016 by Public Health England said that insufficient physical activity is among the ten most important risk factors for the health burden in England. According to the Lancet, physical inactivity contributes to one in six adult deaths in the UK. A WHO report (p17) ranks physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, closely followed in fifth by being overweight or obese. 37% of adults and 85% of 15-year-olds (p69) do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity.

Our most recent CMF File begins: ‘Obesity represents one of the most pervasive health issues for society as well as for individuals. It undermines the health, self-respect and confidence of many individuals and imposes a significant burden on health services.

I am not going to reflect here on the causes of obesity, or the drivers behind increasing waistlines and reduced levels of exercise (see here instead). But I wonder how many of us are fully aware of the extent to which physical activity can affect us all (positively) and in how many ways?

Here are just some documented benefits:

  1. Preventing heart disease and stroke (see here too)
  2. Reducing diabetes risk
  3. Lowering breast and colon cancer risk
  4. Boosting immunity
  5. Slowing ageing (see here too )
  6. Combating dementia (see here too)
  7. Improving gut health
  8. Strengthening bones
  9. Reducing mental ill health (p18)
  10. Treatment for depression (see here too)
  11. Reversing mental decline
  12. Improving memory as you age
  13. Increasing self-control over behaviours
  14. Improving sleep
  15. Improving quality of life and well-being

Of course, many of these conditions are caused by a complex mix of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors, many of which are beyond our control. But being inactive, overweight or obese is one risk factor that can be controlled to some extent.

However physical activity is not the only interesting link to good health.

CMF has published a fascinating paper demonstrating how over 1,200 studies and 400 reviews have shown an association between faith and positive health benefits, including protection from illness, coping with illness, and faster recovery from it. It details how, in the majority of studies, religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction:

In contrast to the popular myth that Christian faith is bad for health, on balance, and despite its limitations, the published research suggests that faith is associated with longer life and a wide range of health benefits. In particular, faith is associated with improved mental health.

Just this week a new study reported that church attenders live on average six years longer.

Of course, while it is striking and encouraging that faith appears to be associated with improved health outcomes, the Christian faith is, of course, not to be judged by its material benefits but by whether it is true. Jesus came into the world to work a far deeper transformation in human lives than simply curing disease.

But, as the Bible reminds us, ‘physical training is of some value’ (1 Timothy 4:8) and physical activity (and inactivity) is not just a personal issue. It should also concern us as Citizens, as Clinicians, as Carers and as Christians.

  1. As Citizens, we have some responsibility to limit – where possible and when within our control – our use of NHS resources. I note above that physical inactivity contributes to one in six deaths in the UK but it also directly costs the NHS over half a billion pounds per year. The costs from just five diseases on which physical inactivity has an influence is the equivalent of £8 per person per year, though some data suggest costs could be as much as £18 per person per year! And the cost to the wider economy – including increasing time off work – is estimated at about £7 billion per year. The point being that our NHS is often overburdened by lifestyle related illness and these costs are avoidable. WHO data estimates that the total annual economic costs of physical inactivity in the UK is £12.5 billion.
  2. As Clinicians we can all be more active in encouraging patients to be more physically active. GP andRCGPClinical Champion for Physical Activity and Lifestyle, Dr Zoe Williams, says: ‘GPs want their patients to be healthy and enjoy life, and there are simple ways in which we can all improve our health. I often encourage my patients to take up more daily physical activity, which can start with just a ten minute brisk walk.’  See the new free ‘Active 10’ app produced by Public Health England this week.
  3. As Carers (parents, siblings, sons/daughters, anyone responsible for others), we also have a duty to those we care for to look after ourselves. God might call us home through trauma or disease but given that there are clear links between inactivity, obesity, ill health and death we may well, by taking care about diet and exercise, be lessening the chance that our dependants, spouses and/or children will be bereaved, or looking after us in a dependent state, ahead of time.
  4. As Christians we are told by Paul that our bodies are gifts from God and temples of the Holy Spirit which should lead us to treat them with respect, look after them carefully and use them in ways that are ‘holy and honourable’. The promotion of a responsible lifestyle must not be confused with the worship of physical perfection and the self-obsessed pursuit of beauty. Mark Daly says in this CMF article:The subject provokes some hard questions for Christians: Are we guilty of excess in our lives or do we live simply without concern for what we eat and wear?(Matthew 6:25). We need a balance of course: food is a precious gift from God, and hospitality and sharing meals is a way to show love and care to others. But ‘gluttony’ seems to be a sin that is either ignored or tolerated, and often accepted by Christians. Yet the Bible is rather less accommodating, citing the Cretans as being ‘lazy gluttons’ and in need of rebuke, and listing greed alongside the sins of sexual immorality and idolatry.

We are fortunate in the UK. We have so many opportunities for taking part in different physical activities, and we have an abundance of delicious and nutritional foods that we are blessed with. So let’s enjoy them, using the fruit of the spirit that is self-control.

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