Last week, visiting friends, I looked out of the window of their flat as dusk fell. In a brightly lit room opposite, a male raised his hand and appeared to bring it down firmly upon the posterior of his rather animated… partner? She lunged, as though trying to catch a baby wildebeest, before staggering into the male’s outstretched arms. Turning to my friend I said: ‘I’ve only seen this sort of stuff on Channel Five.’ I indicated the scene opposite, the female now seeming to deliver a wellaimed swipe at the male’s bare midriff. ‘You numpty,’ he retorted. ‘They’re playing tennis.’
The feeling that a parallel universe of human experience had passed me by slowly evaporated, only to be replaced by a growing sense of exasperation. We now have a plethora of virtual ‘sports’ that further indulge our already overly intimate relationship with computer screens. And there is the added irony that sales of sports-related ‘leisurewear’ have rocketed in proportion to swelling waistlines, with tracksuits now available in ‘large’, ‘huge’ and ‘who’s-eaten-all-the-pies?’ sizes.
In a recent issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine there is a paper entitled ‘Energy expenditure in adolescents playing new generation computer games’. The authors acknowledge the amount of time children spend playing computer games and the difficulty of encouraging them to stop but also wonder if ‘activity promoting computer games might therefore be a useful way to increase activity in young people’.
The plain answer is no. A useful way to increase activity in young people is for their indulgent parents to exert some discipline, stand up to their chubby charges and say that enough is enough. They should instruct them to get off their fat behinds and go outside and run about or even walk about.
If the playing of computer games by pasty-faced kids who are afraid of the rain is to be encouraged – as it seems it is – then it appears that such behaviour should not be promoted to the extent that players might, heaven forbid, break into a sweat.
For example, on Nintendo’s website you will be advised: ‘If you are having so much fun that you start perspiring, take a moment to dry your hands. If you use excessive motion and let go of the Wii Remote, the wrist strap may break and
you could lose control of the Wii Remote. This could injure people nearby or cause damage to other objects.’
The World Health Organization recommends that we should undertake one hour of physical activity on most, if not all days. But a WHO Europe study, The European Health Report 2002, shows that the percentage of people whose physical activity levels are not sufficient to confer health benefits ranges from 70% in Portugal to 14% in Finland. And while those in Europe many sneer at the two-thirds of adult Americans who are overweight or obese, we are catching up. Given the combination of declining activity levels and an increasingly older population, especially in the industrialised countries, this looming crisis in healthcare requires behavioural and social changes rather than medically inspired therapies.
The gym has insinuated itself into the cultural landscape and is merely another means of watching television, meeting up with chums or showing off the latest in fat-hugging Lycra.
To say that gyms are all about exercise is like saying that mobile phones are all about communication.
It would be so good to hear of cardiac nurses and medics who do not recommend their overweight patients to join the local gym but prescribe nothing more than a pair of stout shoes (never mind flashy trainers), a warm coat and the simple instruction to go for regular walks. They might also dispense the following simple advice: eat sensibly; get some fresh air; realise that there is life beyond texting and telly; and accept that responsibility for our own health is not to be found at the health centre but in the space between our ears.
George Winter is a former biomedical scientist at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and City Hospital
Want to read more Hot Topic articles? Just click on the more by this author link at the top of the page.