Why are we so unhealthy?

Man watching TV Only 7% of people are pursuing healthy lifestyles, figures suggest

There are many ways to measure the health of the nation.

The publication of the government's consultation on a minimum price for alcohol puts the focus on harmful drinking habits.

Physical activity is also in the spotlight because of the call by health experts for people to cycle and walk more.

But to get the most comprehensive picture it is perhaps best to look at all the lifestyle factors together.

There are seven established factors that raise the risk of ill-health and these are all measured by the Health Survey for England.

They are: smoking, binge drinking, low fruit and vegetable consumption, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol (a lack of physical activity is a factor in the last three).

Start Quote

Since 1948 there has perhaps been a feeling that medicine will be there to bail us out”

End Quote Prof Alan Maryon-Davis Former president, Faculty of Public Health

In England, an incredible 93% have at least one risk factor. Over a third have three or more.

That makes depressing reading and raises the question about why we are not doing more to look after ourselves.

People in England - and across the rest of the UK for that matter - have some of the worst lifestyles in Europe, particularly in terms of drinking habits and obesity levels.

Commercial pressures

There are a host of reasons and explanations put forward by experts.

Talking about the low cycling and walking rates, Dr Harry Rutter, of the National Obesity Observatory, laments the "congestion and pollution" in our built-up areas.

Many would agree with such sentiments, arguing the amount of traffic is also a major factor in why both children and adults are getting less active.

Dr Rutter wants to see councils, which get responsibility for public health next year, take a lead in creating environments that encourage healthier lifestyles, arguing they have a huge influence through their control of planning, housing transport, schools and leisure.

An unhealthy nation

  • Just over a fifth of adults smoke with rates twice as high in poorer communities.
  • A quarter of adults are obese, while another third are overweight.
  • Only a quarter of adults eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
  • Nearly a third of people have high blood pressure.
  • Those drinking above the recommended levels stand at 35% for men and 28% for women.
  • Two thirds do not do enough physical activity, raising the risk of problems such as raised cholesterol and high blood pressure.

And certainly there is some good international evidence that action at a local level can make a difference.

Some of the countries with populations that pursue the most healthy lifestyles have strong and proactive local government, particularly those in Scandinavia.

Take the example of Denmark's capital, Copenhagen, where for the last two decades the city authorities have been investing in measures to encourage cycling.

The result? More than a third of people cycle to work, university or school, making it arguably the cycling capital of the world.

But of course councils can't solve all the problems on their own.

Commercial pressures from marketing and advertising are also often highlighted - and this is why the government has looked at regulation and legislation on a national level.

The minimum pricing proposal for alcohol is an example of this, as is the plain packaging suggestion for cigarettes which has already been put forward by ministers.

Socio-economic factors play a role as well. Research shows that those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to lead unhealthy lives.

Smoking - the leading cause of avoidable deaths - is now twice as common among groups in lower socio-economic groups.

But once again that cannot explain everything away. After all, as the overall figures show, having an unhealthy lifestyle is not a minority problem.

In fact, in some cases the worst excesses are seen among more affluent groups - for example, the largest rises in alcohol consumption have been seen in the higher income groups in recent years.

It raises the question whether there is something in the public psyche here which encourages people to gamble with their health.

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, a former president of the Faculty of Public Health, while believing the focus should be squarely on the factors mentioned above, acknowledges there could be something in this.

"There may be a cultural reason. It could even be the NHS.

"Since 1948 there has perhaps been a feeling that medicine will be there to bail us out and that could be contributing to this. It's hard to know really, but what is clear is that we need to do something about it."

Nick Triggle Article written by Nick Triggle Nick Triggle Health correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 587.

    Minimum pricing for alcohol will only affect the poor. The rich will be able to afford it; they do not buy the so called cheap(er) alcohol anyway.
    It wont affect binge drinkers much because they binge: they don't drink every day, perhaps once a week or just when their pay check comes.
    True alcoholics will get alcohol anyway they can no matter how much it costs.
    The biggest alcoholic is HMRC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    The addictive lifestyle makes you into a monster. Withdrawel symptoms like irritability set in if you reduce a high fat, caffiene, etc diet changing a lifestyle like that is genuinely difficult and well if you think you could last 5 minutes in the office on a short fuse that is why people don't want to change things. Events will prompt lifestyle change if they are terrifying enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    12 Treize
    If you feel tired so out for a run in the morning or after work and you'll feel great.
    In other words make an effort and stop making excuses.
    You'll find that you will have more energy and will be able to work harder and sleep better.
    A 6 day week, 10 hours a day and two weeks holiday used to be the norm.
    Toughen up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    There is also a gender dimension to this - men are much more likely to have unhealthy lifestysles than women. They smoke more, drink more alcohol and have a poorer diet. The only area where they do better is physical activity. Men's risk-taking is almost certainly linked to the way boys are brought up and expected to behave. But men also receive less health information via the media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    Too much stress, long working hours, long commuting, high bills. No time or energy left for family, hobbies or exercise.


Comments 5 of 587


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