Most of us know that overweight and obesity have reached crisis proportions in Australia but fewer people realise the death toll attributable to inactivity (13,491 a year) is even greater than the deaths linked to excess weight (9,525) and almost as high as for using tobacco (15,511).
So why aren’t we as aware of the price of inactivity as we should be?
What research shows
Agenda-setting research shows that what the media deems to be important influences what the public thinks is important. And media research shows that obesity gets far more news media coverage than physical activity.
A study I led which was published earlier this year found most television stories about physical activity are presented as infotainment (40%), and only treated as “hard news” 18% of the time. About a quarter of the items my colleagues and I analysed for the study were broadcast in current affairs shows while 12% were soft news items.
So, while physical activity does get coverage, it’s not treated with the urgency of hard news, in the way that, say, obesity is. We also found stories were far more likely to discuss the benefits of physical activity (265 mentions) than the risks (57).
This could be good news for champions of exercise, but the risks of being inactive received even less attention (40). The worry is that the major risks of inactivity may be sneaking under the news radar.
When the risks of inactivity were mentioned, the main problem was seen as being overweight (62% of risks mentioned), with heart disease and diabetes coming a distant second and third (10% each). Death rarely featured (2.5%) and cancer was not mentioned even though inactivity is known to raise the risk of colorectal cancer and breast cancer as well as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Most Australians are not sufficiently active (ABS, 2006) because there are many barriers to activity – especially time and money. The barriers most commonly reported by the 91 television items we analysed were sedentary lifestyle, lack of time and physical incapacity.
The main solutions provided included modifying the timing of your exercise by getting up earlier, for instance, setting goals and monitoring your progress, having team spirit and getting motivated. There was a dearth of attention to governments', employers' or industries' role in making it easier to be active by providing facilities, for instance, or improving public transport and educating the public.
Being sufficiently active was portrayed largely as a personal responsibility and much less the responsibility of government or industry. When responsibility was mentioned, 38% of the blame was laid on individuals and 13% on parents.
Some items suggested government responsibility (13%), some mentioned instructors (11%) but less than one in ten mentioned industry (gyms and health insurers, for instance). Employers escaped despite their power over our daily lives and the efforts some employers are already making to help workers be more active.
Acting against inactivity
So are you able to think on your feet? You need to know the answer to this because if more employers take up the challenge, you may soon be invited to a “feeting” rather than a meeting or get swept along by the boss with the words, “walk with me” or “run” or “jog” – while discussing the issue at hand.
If you’re asked to join a mobile meeting, it could be a very good idea to say yes. But this raises the question of whether fitness should be foisted on people. Employers can encourage physical activity without demanding it. Some meetings can be held standing up as long as this doesn’t exclude people who are not fit or well enough to take part.
Reasonable working hours would make a huge difference. And easy-to-locate, attractive staircases; handy showers; secure and convenient bike racks; fun group activities; subsidised lunchtime activities catering to varying levels of ability; standing work stations; and providing space for physical activity would also help. Governments could boost their efforts to provide better public transport, more and safer recreational areas, and healthier urban planning.
Australian news media are getting better at reporting health risks but if the inactivity crisis is going to ring alarm bells in audiences’ minds, researchers and journalists will need to work together to focus the news media spotlight on this deadly risk factor.