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

 

Anyone over 40 may remember schooldays when young people played entire sports matches with nothing more to drink than a slice of orange at half time. Back then, athletes were often careful not to drink water before competing, for fear it would harm their performance. How things have changed.

Nowadays, keeping ‘hydrated’ is taken seriously at all levels. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find any place of physical activity without those ever-present water containers and bottles of sports drinks.

But how important is it for our performance and our health to keep hydrated? And how much benefit do sports drinks actually bring us?

A fine piece of investigative journalism by the British Medical Journal has looked at just these questions, scrutinising the science behind the claims. The article (see the link below*) is, for the most part, nontechnical and easy to read, and we recommend it to anyone interested in sport or physical activity.

Their conclusions: The claims for the importance of keeping hydrated during activity and for the benefits of sports drinks are not backed up by strong scientific studies. In fact, they found that much of the science had been financed by the sports drink industry itself. (This does not make the science invalid.)

Take hydration. Evolution has favoured us humans with effective ways to regulate the amount of water in our bodies needed to keep our physical and chemical processes going smoothly in a wide variety of different environments. In general, we know we need to top up on water by the feeling of thirst we get. But in recent years the idea has emerged that we should abandon this feeling of thirst as an indicator and instead simply drink often. To avoid the dangers of ‘dehydration’, we are expected to prime ourselves by drinking before exercise, continue drinking while exercising and then drink substantial amounts after it.

The article challenges the need for this behaviour. What scientific evidence exists is often based on studies that involved relatively small numbers of selected individuals in artificial lab conditions and is not necessarily applicable to everyone or to real-life situations. For children there’s very little evidence indeed. The risks of dehydration during normal exercise are probable overstated: we are able to endure periods of mild dehydration without harm.

(There is, however, evidence that some elderly people lose some of their sensitivity to feeling thirsty and so should drink a little more often than they feel they need to.)

A huge sports drinks industry has grown up marketed on the basis that these drinks help boost performance for us all. Sports drinks certainly have the right balance of minerals and sugar for rehydrating us quickly, and they replace things like the sodium lost in sweat and the sugar burned in our muscles. But how important is this?

The actual evidence underpinning the claimed performance benefits of sports drinks proved difficult to obtain from a couple of the manufacturers, but the authors scrutinised all the evidence that was supplied to them and concluded that it was fairly weak and may not apply to most of us.

There will be situations where people who are exercising very hard or working in high temperatures may need to replace quickly not only water but also the sodium lost in their sweat. But these are not the everyday situations most of us encounter (and many people consume far too much sodium anyway due to the salt in their food).

A bottle of sports drink typically contains 4 to 5 teaspoons of sugar. The authors of the article did not find any good evidence that this is a better way for athletes to get their energy than from their food. For most of us who are keeping an eye on our waistlines, it’s questionable whether consuming sports drinks containing sugars is a sensible strategy.

Sports drinks are classed as ‘foods’ rather than ‘medicines’. Claims made about the benefits of foods do not need to undergo scrutiny in the same way as those about medicines. But that shouldn’t mean there is any less of a need for good evidence, particularly where claims relate to aspects of health.

Until there is strong evidence, you’ll need to make up your own mind about sports drinks. If you are an elite athlete, do what works well for you and your sport. For everyone else, it’s worth reading the article before coming to a judgement. In particular, if you are exercising to reduce your body fat, be especially sure you are not replacing the calories lost by exercising with calories in your sports drink.

 

*Link to the article: http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4737

 

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

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