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Driving forward habitual physical activity

If it in only took 30 seconds……..

One recent study suggested that it only takes a doctor 30 seconds to instigate behavioural change in someone who is overweight by using the word ‘fat’. Now if that were the case how come potentially life and death diseases such as lung cancer from smoking haven’t been enough to stop people smoking.

Arguably the smoking ban had more of an impact. These claims aren’t in anyway shape or form substantiated, these derive from my own observations. However they support my theory that culture is the real driver of lifestyle change and healthy behaviours.

I always like to use an analogy I devised years ago as a practicing health trainer and health improvement officer. It is to do with habits, and although very simplistic compared to the sea of academical studies and far more clever people than myself operating in this field it captures my point rather beautifully.

The vast majority of us brush our teeth. If you pose the question ‘why do you brush your teeth’, many people will probably look at you rather sarcastically and say to keep them clean and stop decay. Or ‘why wouldn’t I’? A habit instilled in us since childhood. A ‘normal’ ‘regular’ and ‘embedded’ routine.

Teeth of course are a great example. A part of the body ‘under the spotlight’, impressions are formed upon meeting people and teeth are highly visible – why wouldn’t you want to look after them?

Ask the same person why they don’t necessarily look after their ‘health’ the same way they look after their teeth and it sort of makes more sense to them. It makes them ask themselves ‘why don’t I? Making the intangible tangible.

Of course what is ‘health’ – a term used to describe the status of your body’s functions in relation to how effectively they do their job? A clinical value given to ones ability to function efficiently? You catch my drift – it’s not tangible, it doesn’t really resonate with a lot of us tied up in our busy lives.

But habit doesn’t have to necessarily resonate with someone. Habits (bad and good) become routine. Take smoking – how hard is it to kick the habit? Not just the smoking, but the break at work, the social aspect etc. Breaking the routine. Now if we could embed a more physically active lifestyle into someone that then became a habit – job done. In theory.

However the big problem is we’ve arguable designed convenience and speed into our lives. It’s fast paced both on the work front and family front. Physical activity is hard to come by and our employment tasks have changed over the generations. 9-5 desk jobs are the norm. Sitting down is normal and standing up and moving is an inconvenience.

Not only that but physical activity becomes a chore. Gym bunny and lycra clad brigade images are conjured, exercise before work, or after work – the perception is time just isn’t there. But it is. Remember we have formed bad habits and routines, but these can be redesigned. Forward plan and use that bike to work if possible. Commute by public transport and walk more where you can.

Instead of walking and cycling becoming ‘alien’ concepts to children embed this in your routine as a family. See the built environment around you as a ‘mega gym’ with equipment free to use. Stairs, escalators, that round trip to the train station, hills – it becomes addictive.

It certainly isn’t all about marathons and extreme pursuits. It’s about small changes that fit within our lives. We all have a responsibility to hand this advice to our children, families and friends. Lead by example, and although breaking the norm of ‘it’s not how we do things around here’ from peers and family members your actions will earn respect. Others will follow.

Word of mouth and leading by example are the driving forces of culture change. Wishful thinking is 30 seconds is enough to instil change into someone overweight – but it’s a start. Far more important is Community involvement – a key principle in embedding ‘healthier routines’ into people’s lives.

Another is the way we move and the barriers to that movement. Traffic, distance to work, income, how active we are dependant on where we live (yes this does have an impact), to the practicalities of cycling to work. Arriving sweaty on a bike or messy hair for women (not a stereotype but feedback). All barriers we need to address to engrain physical activity back into the fabric of our lives.

That’s the great ask of the City of Sheffield. To get the City the most active in the UK by 2020. A project I work in and not only are we looking at road design for active travel, parks, sports, activity groups and bringing everything together to play its part we are asking people to get involved.

Sedentary habits can be broken when the City of Sheffield has spoken

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