What’s the difference between going for a run and brushing your teeth?
What sounds like the set up for another of my “awesome” jokes is actually a serious question, but I’ll return to that later…
I’ve talked at (tedious) length about my own lack of desire to exercise, how I find it something I really (really) have to push myself to do. But, here I am again. I’m afraid it’s just too important not to harp on about.
The topic is partly on my mind as I used to work for Sport Wales, which has a mission to get Wales moving (not their tagline, but it has a nice ring to it), and partly as it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. There are many factors that contribute to good mental health, and exercise is not only one of them, but one of the most effective (with few side effects either).
Exercise helps make us fitter, longer living AND happier to boot, so we should all be doing it as a matter of course, right? No-one is going to want to miss out on this life-enhancing combo, and yet, millions do just that – i.e. not enough, or worse, nothing at all.
From working in the sector and reading numerous articles on the subject, it is clear that work is being done to improve the situation. Funding has been put into increasing opportunities, be this improving facilities, supporting grassroots clubs or helping break down barriers to ensure that underrepresented groups such as women and BAME people have equity of access, and these are all vital to give everyone a better chance of good health.
Some people are inspired by elite athletes’ success to try out sports for themselves. Be it the Olympics, Premier League or Six Nations, there are a multitude of sports on TV showcasing the top competitors (including, slowly, more female sport too).
And, this week, there have been stories about GPs prescribing exercise, which is recognition of its vital contribution to overall public health and wellbeing (both physical and mental). There are also reports of exercise being promoted to cancer patients, highlighting its efficacy in improving outcomes alongside medication.
So regular exercise is not just important, it’s essential. It is not enough simply to ensure that the facilities are in place and the barriers are broken down. There are still too many who do little or no exercise, and it’s costing them years and the NHS serious money. Exercise needs to be habitual.
And this is where the comparison to tooth brushing comes in. NOT doing exercise regularly should feel alien to us, like something’s missing.
For the vast majority, brushing your teeth is something you do every day. You barely need to think about it. In fact, you actively notice when you don’t do it. It’s ingrained. It’s a habit. As a child it was part of your daily regime. You were chastised for not doing it or making a token effort (and possibly under duress too, inclined as parents will attest).
We all appreciate the importance of dental hygiene and no-one questions maintaining it every day, yet exercise is not given the same priority, despite being more crucial. As a consequence, even with current initiatives, levels of inactivity pose a massive health risk to individuals and society as a whole.
While efforts made by government, clubs and communities do impact positively on physical activity levels, the necessary sea change will not come about without a seismic cultural shift. Parents, teachers and all those who influence early years behaviour need to be involved, beginning with our youngest, and instilling in them a habit for exercise that becomes as natural as doing your daily dental duty.