If it were a drug, it would be hailed as a miracle. If it were a new exotically named therapy, people would be queuing for a session. No treatment in the history of medicine has achieved what moving your arms and legs about can achieve. It is called exercise.
It protects against breast cancer and colon cancer, cuts the risk of heart disease and diabetes, builds up the bones and reduces the risk of premature death by up to 30 per cent. It improves mood and brings a sense of wellbeing. Yet two thirds of men and three quarters of women fail to get an adequate dose.
Despite the obvious benefits, people are reluctant to take the medicine and efforts over more than a decade have failed to persuade them. Total miles walked and cycled have fallen by more than a quarter since 1976 and the proportion of inactive men and women has grown to more than one third.
Yesterday the Government tried again by publishing the first comprehensive report examining the evidence for the benefits of physical activity. It shows you do not need to be a marathon runner, or even a Sunday jogger, to benefit. Vacuuming, mowing the lawn and walking to the bus stop have more effect on health than a fistful of blood pressure pills.
The report, At Least Five a Week, echoes the "five a day" advice on fruit and vegetables, and is aimed at getting Britain off the couch and onto its feet for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. But, as before, there is nothing but warm words and exhortation to help it. Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, said: "We are moving less than our parents and grandparents. This is a major risk for the nation's health. We need to combat the couch-potato culture and this means building moderate everyday physical activity into our lives."
A mechanised world has created a global shortage of physical activity, but people do not complain. In Britain, the average citizen gets a mile less walking a week than 20 years ago. But Sir Liam said ministers were now practising what they preached and today's cabinet was "one of the fittest on record".
Sir Liam said that as a six- year-old his mother turned him out of the house in the morning "and I would be running around and playing and wouldn't return till the evening". Today's youngsters are kept indoors for safety and run only from computer to fridge. Children should aim to take at least 60 minutes of moderate activity a day, he said.
Now in his 50s with a demanding job and working long hours, Sir Liam said he used an exercise bike at home and took the stairs instead of the lift. "People shouldn't be daunted. [The daily target] can be built up in 10-minute bursts and from several activities. They choose what suits their lifestyle."
The menu starts with ironing ("light intensity"), moves up through vacuuming and golf (moderate intensity) and advances through dancing and swimming to running (vigorous). For protection of the heart, the more vigorous the activity the better, but for other chronic conditions moderate exercise which makes the heart beat faster and breathing harder was just as effective, Sir Liam said.
The report puts the cost of inactivity to the nation at £8.2bn including health care and costs to society. Those costs would grow and create an increasing burden of chronic illness for the NHS as set out in the reports by Sir Derek Wanless to the Treasury, unless action were taken now to increase levels of activity, Sir Liam said.
But the report does not say how this is to be done. Sir Liam said: "It is not good enough to hand out leaflets telling people to get on with it. We have got to give them opportunities."
The 120-page report will be considered by ministers who are drawing up a White Paper on public health for the summer. But John Reid the Secretary of State for Health, is opposed to any measure that smacks of the nanny state. Yesterday, commending the more active lifestyle, he said: "The challenge is how we achieve that."
Cleaning and dusting
Cycling 12-14 mph
Swimming - 50 yds/minute
Running - 7.5 mins/mile
ENERGY EXPENDITURE (METS)
*20-30 per cent reduced risk of premature death
*Protects against up to 20 chronic conditions
*Prevents heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity
*40-50 per cent lower risk of colon cancer
*Lower risk of post menopausal breast cancer
*Strengthens bones and reduces risk of fractures
*33-50 per cent reduced risk of diabetes
*Improves psychological wellbeing
A MET is a measure of energy expenditure. One MET is the rate at which calories are burned at rest. Two METS is double, and so on