Is exercise a waste of time? Don't let the headlines run away with you

Teenagers, essentially, need to move around a lot

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Couch potatoes, relax. Kick off those trainers. Don’t worry about that gym membership. Because the hot news is that exercise is bad for you. According to researchers from Lausanne in Switzerland, gym fanatics are no more healthier than lazy slobs. People who exercise more than 17 hours a week, it was found, scored the same in health and well-being tests than those who did less than 3.5 hours a week, including some who take zero exercise. 1,200 teenagers were questioned about their sporting habits, and tested under a scoring system developed by the World Health Organisation, with the results published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

While I can see this report -  which after all is published in a responsible journal, and comes from a thoughtful place such as Switzerland -   might provide the ideal riposte to people who have always hated exercise, I think a bit of picking apart might be in order.

First, let us ponder the 17 hours thing. Do you know anyone who exercises for 17 hours a week? I am considered a bit of a fanatic by some, since I am a serial marathon runner. But even when I am gearing up for a race, and clocking up my training miles with obsessive zeal, I don’t think I ever run for more than six hours a week, maybe with an hour or two doing something nice like swimming. So eight hours, tops. The notion of doing more than double that is horrendous, and unless your name is Mo Farah,  would be utterly counter productive, since you would run the risk of injury pretty fast. The same goes for gym attendance. 17 hours in a week would require over two hours attendance every day. Quite difficult to fit in for someone who is not a sporting professional.

Yet read past the sensational headlines and you arrive at the meat of the report. Exercise for teenagers is important. Quite a lot of it, too. Too much is bad, but so is too little. Regular, extensive sporting activity, the report found, meant lower levels of stress and anxiety, and gave teenagers a greater sense of self-esteem. It even boosted brainpower. This is not to mention the other, more obvious physical benefits. This is important; teenage mental health and anxiety is not getting better, it is getting worse. Teenagers are not getting fitter, they are getting fatter. No matter how you look at it, the findings of this report seem pretty vital to me. 

It suggests the optimum amount of sporting activity and exercise young people should be taking is 14 hours a week, which is still an awful lot for most people to envisage, even marathon anoraks such as myself. Teenagers, essentially, need to move around a lot, and regularly. The medical profession should pay attention. How much are teenagers currently advised to exercise a day? One hour. So,  seven hours a week.

Perhaps the news headline needs not to be ‘lots of exercise is bad for you’, but ‘teenagers should double their exercise levels’. How can young people be encouraged to pick up the habit of exercise? Cheaper teenage membership of gyms might be one idea. Equipment should be a lot cheaper. Nike and its cohorts should be ashamed of themselves for their habit of putting a customary £90 price tag on running shoes aimed at teens. Teams should be more easy to join. The Join In push for volunteers to run sporting events this summer was a start, but there needs to be a year round emphasis on getting young people into teams and playing sport. Not for 17 hours a week. But maybe for 10. It would be a start. The mental and physical health of young people is too important to ignore. 

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