Should Our Fitness Become A Political Issue?

Getting fit sure looks like a lot of fun.

To realise this, you only need to glimpse the glowing images of trim humans in streamlined, fluorescent outfits. Reaching, lunging, thrusting, they work their way through circuits of excitement and self-satisfaction with whoops of glee and communal feeling. Gosh, it’s enough to make you drop this magazine and follow the distant echo of house music to discover your new aspirational summit.

Yet it turns out that these wunderkinders are actually a pretty specific bunch. It turns out that the majority of us seem more content to be just watching these bodies from the sidelines, (read: desk/sofa/car).

As the costs related to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle spiral and our NHS struggles to bear our weight, is a drastic political solution required to stem the hobbling flow? Should our fitness become politically defined, monitored and controlled, or is this a step too close to a road that leads to a dystopian, totalitarian future?

The weight of our world.

Today, over one third of the world’s population are obese or overweight. While there will always be a proportion of this that isn’t preventable, the vast majority is simply a personification of our modern lifestyles.

This lifestyle is sedentary, certainly when compared to that of previous generations. Most people are desk-bound for 40 hours or more per week. Technology is increasingly removing the burden of physical exertion from each and every aspect of our lives. And though we welcome such advancements, it’s fair to say that our expanding waistbands and increasing hospital visits evidence the teething problems still needing to be ironed out.

The solution to this issue is patronisingly simple: eat healthily and exercise more. So why are the problems continuing to increase?

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Jogging: one way to bridge the gap to better fitness

There is a significant divide opening up across the landscape.

As the number of people with gym memberships steadily increases (now 1 in 7 people in the UK in 2016), the number of people considered overweight (68% of men in 2014) or obese (27% of men and women) have reached all-time highs.  In fact, the UK has the unenviable accolade as having the highest proportion of obese people in Europe.

While these figures are not necessarily mutually exclusive—no doubt plenty of gym members are there precisely to remove themselves from the obese or overweight categories, and exercise does take place outside of gyms occasionally—they do suggest that we may not be prioritising our health and fitness quite as we should.

 No need to look beyond the mirror.

Ironically, the gym culture may be partly to blame.

Since the Lycra-clad, hip-thrusting aerobics revolution of the 1980s, fitness has become commodified and then, like so many inner city spaces with ‘character’, gentrified. No fitness revolution has managed to avoid this capitalist process; even yoga, that most ancient of forms, feels like it’s in the middle of its popularity bell curve, soon to be superseded by whatever reinvented clean-and-jerk comes next.

These fitness revolutions have done good things: they’ve created enthusiastic followings; they’ve helped the spread of health knowledge; and they’ve spawned hugely lucrative industries. But they’ve also built a highly specific and elitist culture around them.

Nowhere is this more apparent than that great narcissist mirror of social media. Perfectly-formed fitness enthusiasts plaster our news feeds and Instagram feeds. Now, my guess is you react one of two ways to these images and videos: they inspire you or they deter you. You can ponder which side you fall on as privately as you wish.

There is also a serious economic issue that this fitness industry has created. An aspirational lifestyle choice linked to fashion as much as fitness, it has become inaccessible to anyone lacking sufficient disposable income to buy the latest stink-resistant sweat towel.

Add to this the time constraints that make up most of our quotidian moaning and it is easy to see how our fitness slips down our priority list. You’ll probably find it languishing down with needlepoint and french cooking in the to-do-when-I-get-a-minute-for-myself section.

It appears we are in an extreme situation. While the Instafittest are most Pinterested in seeing their image flash across one-way social media mirror, the majority of the population are joining in a revolution that will see over half of all adults and a quarter of children obese by 2050.

So, what can be done, and is it time that fitness was brought more directly into the political sphere?

Fit for politics?

The deafening creak of the NHS is one reason to argue yes to more political influence over our fitness. Obesity alone costs the NHS £3 billion annually, more than the NHS deficit for 2015/16.

But this is far from a UK exclusive. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that physical inactivity may be among the top ten leading causes of death and disability in the world, and outside sub-Saharan Africa, could even be the primary cause of death.

The WHO then kindly signalled who’s to blame, saying “these chronic diseases are, for the most part, entirely preventable”. That put the ball back in our court in 2002.

As it turned out, we’d already left the court to have a nice sit down, and maybe a sandwich to keep us going. Since this WHO warning was published, the issues it outlined have only worsened. For example, there has been more than a 20% growth in the number of obese people in the UK since 2002.

We clearly aren’t to be trusted. The spiralling costs of dealing with our inactivity (literally) suggest an alternative path should be considered. Is it time to hand over our fitness to the edict of experts and have the government take a centralised interest as we fight the flab?

A programme for health.

If so, how could this work? Well, most simply it could improve the incentives for getting fitter. It already disincentivises cigarettes, alcohol through heavy taxes, could it do the reverse for things that decrease the risk of hospital admissions or excessive sick days?

They could offer a programme of subsidised memberships to clubs of our choice, monitored on a merit basis. Those who achieve reasonable health goals (like weight loss or improved cardiovascular performance) could retain their subsidised membership and enjoy the regular endorphin hit, free of charge.

But what of those who fail to meet their goals? Would they be moved into a more closely monitored regimen, or receive some other penalty? Perhaps Saturday morning boot camps in our local parks will become less voluntary, with attendances written out as a doctor’s prescription.

If not this then a specific tax incentive could work. What’s more motivating than monetising our fitness so the winners can trim their tax payments alongside their waistlines. Go for a run and save tax, who wouldn’t love that?

But how to avoid prioritising gyms or classes when some of the best exercise is free? How about giving fitness trackers to everyone. These handy devices, worn 24/7 can track all the good work were already doing without needing to step a single squeaky foot near a gym.

A number of steps could be set as a simple daily requirement. Each day that it’s achieved could be rewarded, and each day that it isn’t could be penalised. Highly motivating stuff.

This idea also neatly follows the old argument that whosoever causes the NHS burden should be made to pay for it. But when was any political issue ever so neat or simple?

This plan I’m suggesting. I worry it’s heading in a somewhat tricky direction.  Fitness trackers, exercise requirements, centrally-governed waistlines – doesn’t this all sound a little, well, totalitarian?

Could a well-meaning drive to improve a nation’s fitness turn into a restriction of individual freedoms, or worse?

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Where do the seeds of oppression lie, and are we right to resist all attempts for control?

The body is political, after all.

As it turns out, the question of whether we can politicise our fitness is located in the highly complex sphere of the politicised body.

From slavery to abortion, history is littered with examples of fights against undue political ownership of our bodies. Debates over who controls what happens with or to our bodies are about the most emotionally fraught and individually relevant that politics engages in.

Delicately these debates attempt to tread a precarious balancing act between individual free choice and national (or institutional) well-being. When it comes to fitness and health, the scales are mighty tricky to balance.

So what is a genuine solution to our health and fitness problem?

Are we ready to take responsibility to combat the issues of inactivity, or would we prefer to accept a more controlling influence over our fitness? Is it worth giving up some freedom of choice to save our NHS and improve national productivity?

Or is this madness, another step towards a reality like Orwell’s 1984 and something we should virulently oppose?

This is my body; I can do with it as I wish – or are we no longer fit to make such choices?

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