We’re told the NHS is strapped for cash and it might get worse before it gets better. So, is there anything we can do as individuals? Actually, yes there is. Better still, it may even bring us financial benefits too.

A recent report* from Nuffield Health and the London School of Economics called “12 minutes more…” makes a strong economic case for taking more exercise. It is an approachable document well worth browsing through.

The health benefits of activity have been shown repeatedly: increased physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, helps control type 2 diabetes, reduces blood pressure and body fat, improves aspects of mental health and much more. As a result, governments around the world – including our own – have recommended we all do at least 150 minutes of moderately physical activity a week.

Unfortunately, the report concludes that the majority of us don’t achieve this level. But it goes a stage further by looking at what this means economically for individuals and for the country.

First, there’s the personal burden when someone contracts one of the long-term diseases that physical activity might have helped prevent. Quite apart from the unpleasantness of the disease itself, there is the potential for loss of earnings and the impact this has on one’s own life and the lives of family members.

Secondly, there’s the less obvious but even greater burden illness puts on society as a whole through the loss of economic activity and the demands placed on the NHS and other organisations. The sums involved are quite staggering. If everyone did the recommended amount of exercise, the report authors calculate this would save the NHS £257 million per year. Mental health savings – taking account of savings for the NHS, earnings and welfare – would be over £6.3 billion.

On an individual level, the report estimates that the average household income of those that do moderate sports is more than £6,500 a year higher than inactive households. These people are also more likely to be employed.

This report contains a lot of detail establishing how all these figures were calculated. But even if only a proportion of these staggering amounts could be saved it shows that we can all do our bit by increasing our activity levels.

Many economists believe that if something doesn’t hit our own pocket directly we tend to ignore it – and that certainly seems true for physical activity. It’s only when a report like this spells it out to us that we can see clearly the enormous cost inactivity is having.

And the solution is hardly a drastic one. The report’s title “12 minutes more…” comes from its bottom line finding: that all it would take to improve our health and personal finances, and to relieve the financial pressure on the NHS, is an increase in the amount of activity we do on average of just 12 minutes a day.

 

 

*Link to the report: http://www.nuffieldhealth.com/sites/default/files/inline/Nuffield%20Health_%20LSE_Low-Fitness_Report.pdf

 

Strawberries and blueberries are some of summer’s delights. Now it seems they may even be helping to keep your brain sharp.

At least, that seems to be the case for women aged over 70. In a study that involved 16,000 American women, those who ate a portion of strawberries twice a week or a portion of blueberries once a week showed a slower decline in their mental abilities than those who didn’t.

As people get older, our brains tend gradually to become less sharp, our memory doesn’t work quite so well, and it can take a little longer to solve problems or learn new things. This is technically known as ‘cognitive decline’, and it is not the same as dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease), a specific disorder that only affects a small proportion of people.

What the study found was that cognitive decline was delayed by up to two and a half years in the women who regularly ate berries.

This is probably due to some specific substances that the berries contain in small amounts: anthocyanidins, which are a type of flavonoid. There is quite a lot of dietary evidence showing that flavonoids – which are found in a number of fruit and vegetables – have health benefits, and in laboratory experiments they have been shown to have positive effects on brain cells.

If you like strawberries, blueberries and, indeed, other types of berries, you now have a good reason to indulge yourself. Just don’t undo the good work with too much sugar and cream!

*Link to the study: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ana.23594/abstract

 

Professor Brian Kirby, author of How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life

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