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Risks of physical inactivity 'lack promotion'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Physical activity is increasingly acknowledged as one of the keys to preventing chronic disease.

Yet compared to efforts to address risk factors like smoking, hypertension, poor diet, and obesity, its position remains low, says Australian physical activity and public health expert professor Adrian Bauman.

Professor of Public Health at Sydney University, Professor Bauman has told today’s national nutrition and physical activity conference in Rotorua that despite physical inactivity posing a similar risk to these other factors, investments in promoting it have generally been lower, particularly from the health sector .

The conference, with the theme "It Starts With Us: Ma Mātau E Timata", is hosted by Agencies for Nutrition Action (ANA), a national body committed to improving nutrition and physical activity in Aotearoa.

"Physical activity is often described as the ’Cinderella’ of non-communicable disease prevention. The causes for this are partly historical in that clinicians and public health professionals previously did not recognise it as a substantial risk factor," Professor Bauman says.

"Put simply, we did not see lack of total physical activity as a serious concern. Burden of disease studies, however, estimate roughly equivalent population risks for low physical activity, smoking, hypertension, poor diet, obesity and, slightly less for alcohol use."

Professor Bauman suggests a reason for the lower investment in promotion might be that, unlike the other risk factors, the physical activity ‘problem’ has not been medicalised.

"There is no one drug to help fix the problem, no one business stands to make a profit out of it, and physical inactivity is not labelled as a disease," he says.

He says this may explain why the policy response to physical activity has been haphazard in many countries, with inconsistent efforts devoted to it as a leading risk factor for diseases like cardiovascular disease.

The relatively low status of physical activity came home to him in 2004 when providing expert assistance to the World Health Organization in developing policies on diet and physical activity.

"The panel consisted of eight nutritionists and me," he recalls.

Professor Bauman praises New Zealand’s record, saying that high profile national activity campaigns like Push Play had helped make it a model throughout the world.

But he says in recent years the official focus for physical activity programmes had shifted from community programmes like these, to elite sports.

"Community wide approaches like Push Play are still the key. I really want to challenge your health sector to pick up the mantle of increasing activity levels for all New Zealanders," he says.

"And let’s face it. New Zealand, like Australia, is a fabulous environment to get out and be active in."

Professor Bauman is an epidemiologist, health promotion researcher, public health physician, and Director of the Prevention Research Collaboration (PRC), part of the School of Public Health, University of Sydney

Agencies for Nutrition Action - Nga Takawaenga Hapai Kai Hauora (ANA) has 11 members: the Asian Network Inc, Cancer Society of NZ, National Heart Foundation of NZ, Diabetes NZ, Dietitians NZ, Home Economics and Technology Teachers Assn of NZ, NZ Nutrition Foundation, NZ Recreation Assn, Te Hotu Manawa Maori, Pacific Island Food and Nutrition Action Group, and the Stroke Foundation of NZ.

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