The New Labour workout: how tennis and vacuuming can save the nation

The Government aims to tackle rising obesity levels by pulling us away from the sofa to undergo keep-fit programmes. Francis Elliott reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Domestic chores including vacuum-cleaning and mowing the lawn are to be included in a new government-approved regime of daily exercises. This week the Chief Medical Officer will attempt to shock the nation from its sofa with a report on sharply declining levels of physical activity over the past two decades. Britons are walking less, playing less sport, driving more and watching more television than ever, as obesity rates threaten to reach epidemic levels.

Domestic chores including vacuum-cleaning and mowing the lawn are to be included in a new government-approved regime of daily exercises. This week the Chief Medical Officer will attempt to shock the nation from its sofa with a report on sharply declining levels of physical activity over the past two decades. Britons are walking less, playing less sport, driving more and watching more television than ever, as obesity rates threaten to reach epidemic levels.

Sir Liam Donaldson's long-awaited report, "Physical Activity and Health", will also launch a "five-a-week" campaign to get adults to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. For children, the bar is set even higher: they must do an hour's moderate exercise five times a week to comply with the regime. To help those who are unclear about what counts towards the total, Sir Liam has graded everyday activities to help the nation assess its fitness.

There is mixed news for the house-proud: ironing and dusting are judged only as "light" exercise and do not, therefore, count towards the target. Vacuum-cleaning, however, sneaks into the "moderate" category. For those daunted by the prospect of wielding a heavy cleaner for half-an-hour, Sir Liam has further good news. He will say that the 30-minute total can be split into three separate bursts of activity.

Ten-minute sessions mowing the lawn or just walking briskly (defined as faster than 2mph) are also judged to be sufficiently strenuous.

Golfers may be disappointed to learn that their sport counts only as moderate exercise, as may those who, like Tony Blair, enjoy a game of doubles tennis. The singles game, by contrast, is classed as "vigorous", along with "aerobic" dancing, swimming and running.

Not everyone was impressed by the officially sanctioned list. "This is unbelievable," said Matt Todman of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, and the Sports and Spinal Clinic in Harley Street. "Fitness is about getting out of breath and raising your resting heart rate - not doing the ironing. On the list, there's a massive jump between the moderate and vigorous groups of exercise: it's like going from a walk down the road four times a week to 90 minutes of football. If people really want to see any improvement, they have to get out and puff. You'd have to have a really big house for vacuuming to improve your fitness."

Matt Roberts, a leading fitness instructor, was also sceptical. "Most of the things on this list are part of people's daily activity anyway, so how will their fitness improve?" he asked. "We should all be going to the gym over and above this. To improve fitness, you have to 'overload' the body: make it adapt to working at a higher level by repeatedly pushing it there.

"In order to make this process work, most people will need vigorous exercise for at least half an hour, three or four times a week. If you want results, you have to do things that will actually test your body. You need to get your heart, lungs and muscle structure really working - you should be getting hot, out of breath, and sweaty. While anything that helps people do this is good, I'm afraid you aren't going to get fit by doing the cleaning - it just isn't going to happen."

Health officials insist that it is the more mundane forms of exercise that need promoting. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, has wrested control over policies to reduce obesity from Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dr Reid is understood to believe that earlier government attempts to improve physical activity have been too targeted on improving facilities for those already engaged in sport. He wants to ensure that the latest drive reaches those who would benefit most from doing more.

"This is about reaching those who may not belong to a gym or play a sport," said one senior civil servant. "It's about getting people to consider getting off the bus a stop early and walking instead or cycling to work and not taking the car."

Ministers have been struck by data, to be published in the Chief Medical Officer's report, showing how much less Britons walk today compared with just two decades ago. In 1975, the average distance covered on foot was 250 miles. By 2000, that figure had fallen to 189. The consequences of such collective inactivity on the nation's health are becoming increasingly obvious, not just in rising levels of obesity but in other forms of disease associated with lack of exercise.

Sir Liam includes new data on how physical activity can reduce the risk of contracting some forms of cancer and bone disease. The CMO also explains how exercise is linked to mental health.

Policies to reverse the trend of declining levels of physical activity are expected to be included in the forthcoming White Paper on public health, currently being drafted. Offering firms tax breaks to include changing and showering facilities are among options under discussion, as is forcing local councils to provide a greater number of cycle lanes.

Ministers are also looking closely at pilot projects designed to reduce the parental attraction to the "school run". Schools may also be encouraged to offer "walking buses" in which pupils are walked to and from school under the supervision of an adult.

Such public health policies are bound to be contentious, and there is a certain amount of nervousness in Whitehall about what some will regard as another manifestation of "nanny-statism".

"It's all about where the balance lies," one official reflected last night. "Is the crisis in public health now so bad that it justifies a measure of compulsion?"

Keeping fit with Tony and Prezza

Adults (including the elderly): 30 minutes' moderate exercise five days a week. Under-18s: 60 minutes' exercise five days a week.

Exercise can be taken in separate sessions, although they should not be shorter than 10 minutes each.

Choose from:

* Vacuum-cleaning

* Brisk walking (more than 2mph)

* Golf

* Lawn-mowing (including using a power mower)

* Slow cycling

* Tennis doubles

AN IDLER'S VIEW

By Tom Hodgkinson

Idlers everywhere shudder with fear each time the Government launches a new health drive. Can't it stick to governing, we moan. Why must it insist on giving us reams of earnest, joyless and unsolicited advice on how to live? We may be inert, sluggish and disinclined to strenuous effort, but that's our choice, surely.

This latest effort, though, contains food for thought for idlers. The delightful-sounding activity called "slow walking" gets official government recognition as "light" exercise. Although it apparently is almost useless when it comes to keeping fit, is a great pleasure to the idler. All you have to do is keep the pace under 2mph and you will be a flâneur, an ambler in the city, contributing nothing to your personal fitness or to the health of the economy, which is just how idlers like it.

There are other pleasures here for the idler to pursue. Highly recommended on this eccentric list are "slow cycling" and "slow front crawl swimming". It all conjures up a delightful image of a more mellow nation, with all of us treading purposelessly along the streets, overtaken only by snail's-pace cyclists.

Indeed, the idea of "slowness" seems to be becoming part of the zeitgeist. The ever-expanding Italian Slow Food movement, for example, protests against the homogeneity of the fast-food empires and promotes a pleasure-loving, Epicurean approach to life.

It seems that we are getting fed up with all the speed, hurry and worry.

It is true that there is a dose of puritanism in the medical officer's list. Recommended moderate exercises include such tedious chores as vacuuming and mowing the lawn. Is the Government using this fitness thing as an excuse to promote bourgeois values such as cleanliness and tidiness?

But we idlers take heart from the fact that slowness is actually being encouraged. Maybe the Government is at last showing signs of becoming more idler-friendly. We look forward to next year's recommendations, which I hope will include lying in bed all morning, staring out of the window, rocking gently in a hammock all afternoon and taking long naps, sometimes twice a day.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler' magazine, www.idler.co.uk. The Ladies of Leisure issue is out now

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