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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    The NHS is free at the point of use which is clear proof that we are happy for the government to take responsbility for our health as opposed to us all taking responsibility via health insurance. If we have chosen the former then surely we should also rely on the government to ban cigarettes and restrict alcohol, sugar, fatty foods etc which have been scientifically proven to cause harm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    The decline of health came with the decline of the hobby, how many people do you know who would say that they don't have any real hobbies. Hobbies give us a purpose other than work in life and a reason to get up out of the couch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    @alexandra I have some sympathy with that. Throw in a couple of kids and people literally have no time. Britain's work till you drop mentality is baffling. Wait till the economy picks up and leeches will suck it all dry again. The Med is dripping with those who pick the fruits of others labours and get out. Sustainable growth with sensible working hours should be the target, but it never will be,

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    It isn't just about self control and eat less, the way society has evolved means its necessary for the majority of people to need to drive cars, instead of walking to work, to school etc., mums also being encouraged to work means there is often less time.Schools may not now be in local villages so travel by car more necessary. Less green spaces for recreation. Less time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    I have just moved back to the UK from New Zealand after living there for 11 years. I am now living in London and am working incredibly long hours compared to NZ. Working longer hours means there is less time for exercise and all you want to do is relax with a drink and a ready made meal after work. I walk to work and bus home so I can still get in 45 minutes of exercise each day. It is possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    My children all cycle everywhere. They are like stick insects. It terrifies me though, it simply isn't safe. I wish they wouldn't cycle. I know it is healthy and sensible from a health point of view but so dangerous on todays roads. I walk everywhere, but even that is only safe in towns - country roads with no pavements and fast traffic are out of the question.

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    How about opening up school playing facilities in the evenings (6pm+) and weekends for the local community to use free of charge. This is commonplace in far east countries such as Taiwan, Japan, and China, where 100’s of people all ages are seen using facilities on a daily basis. Why? -social community -resourceful use of underused facilities -value for money -healthy active society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 575.

    Find it hard to understand why anyone wouldn't look after themselves. One life, one body. Neglect it and blame others or the government for your short comings? Madness. Shout political correctness from the rooftops as you can't smoke and eat enough saturated fats? Insanity.

    Stay healthy - its easy, inexpensive and you'll look and feel better, live longer and be less likely to fall ill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    565.unreality TV

    The TV thing is mere coincidence....the rise is mainly mirrored by the excessive drive to remove all fats from processed foods.

    Only bad fats should have been removed, as the medical world said, but Govts panicked & tried to do away with all fats....

    ....so the junk food companies replaced them with corn startch instead, to keep the "flavour" in their products.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    horrible weather and processed food

    northern europe drinks loads of booze
    junk food from america full of chemicals( theory not physically imported)

    causes not symptoms dear politicians
    but causes do not make soundbites do they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    The problem is we're very much more closer to America, than Europe in our lifestyles than we'd like to admit.

    Cheap manufactured junk food, frozen pizzas etc are a staple of many diets, as are fast food outlets such as McDonalds.

    Sad but true. So we'll have the same sort of problems health wise as our unhealthy American friends. :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    To solve these problems we have to use imagination and have the will. I leave in a very hot city in South America,so I go to work before sunrise ,6.30and go home at dusk, 7 pm using a byke . Riding it is very dfficult, but I have been doing it for two months and I feel much better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    @524 Dazzler

    Hope nobody missed the subtle psychops in the three articles you mention -snipes at NHS and welfare state!

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    I used to love riding a bike, but the roads have become too dangerous around where I live. Also, if you are going through the dreaded menopause, you find that any kind of exertion makes you sweat too much so you would not be fit to attend work if your journey had any sort of exertion. Even without any exertion it can be really bad. I have to put the air con on in the car whatever temp outside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    Could it perhaps be because the Olympic Games was sold out to fast food outlets?

    Any Government of any colour who had the integrity to do as they say would be worth voting for.


    Coca Cola, McD's and Visa. Hypocrisy at it's best.


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