Not much has changed in the 20 years since Norm last urged ‘Life. Be In It’. Australians still don’t do enough exercise. But the way television news tells it, your biggest worry is the risk of putting on a few kilos and the only one to blame if you do is you.
Those are among the key findings of research in 2011 led by UTS researcher Dr Catriona Bonfiglioli into how television news programmes report a lack of physical activity among Australians. The findings also show that unlike obesity, physical activity isn’t generally reported as a public health issue on serious news bulletins such as the ABC 7pm News. Instead it tends to be reported as an individual lifestyle choice and relegated to good news stories on shows such as Sunrise or A Current Affair.
“It’s great if you do it, but not a serious problem if you don’t,” is the message, says research co-author, associate professor Dr Ben Smith, from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University.
But it is a concern, says Dr Smith, that there was little mention of the very real potential for chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. Physical activity, he says, is fundamental in tackling those diseases. Part of the reason seems to be a lack of communication of the research into the more serious risks of inactivity.
There is a lot of research going on but it’s just not getting seen, says Dr Smith. “It comes back to us at least initially to get our findings out there,” he says.
And what the findings suggest is that a lack of physical activity is a greater public health crisis in Australia than obesity. “Inactivity is actually a bigger killer than obesity,” says Dr Bonfiglioli.
But to get this message across, researchers need to become more adept at finding the news angles in their research and tipping off journalists, she says. One message that did emerge from the reporting was that of individual responsibility. “Most of the stories … didn’t talk about responsibility at all,” says Dr Bonfiglioli. “When they did blame someone it was individuals.”
Individuals, it was reported, should find ways to get active by getting motivated, getting inspired and frankly, getting out of bed a bit earlier in the morning. Missing from the reporting altogether seemed to be anything about the role of government and employers, despite their profound influence on shaping our lives. “They are completely off the hook,” says Dr Bonfiglioli.
The world we live in makes us lazy, and some of the blame for that lies with government and employers. If you can’t lock your bike at the office because there are no secure bike racks then you‘ll probably just take the bus. But even if your office does provide a place to park your bike, if you spend half the trip carrying it up and down stairs because the bike paths don’t join up, you’ll probably just take the bus.Every time you just take the bus, it’s one less chance to get physically active.
Investing in infrastructure, and making our environment a place where physical activity comes easily costs money. “We don’t spend nearly enough money on health prevention and disease prevention,” says Dr Bonfiglioli.
But even without that spending we are still picking up the tab as a nation for our bad habits. Well over a billion dollars is spent annually on the healthcare costs of a lack of physical activity among Australians. That is not to say that government and at least some employers don’t take physical activity seriously.
“We welcome research like this and we’ll actively engage with people doing that work,” says Dr Lisa Studdert, manager of policy and programs at the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA). ANPHA is in charge of the government’s current ‘Measure-Up’ TV campaign, aimed at persuading Australians to adopt healthier lifestyles. The jury is still out on whether ‘Measure-Up’ is successful, but as part of a wider strategy the evidence suggests it should be.
“There is actual evidence to show that government social marketing campaigns are effective,” says research co-author Lesley King, executive officer of the Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Research Group (PANORG) at the University of Sydney. But the social marketing message about physical activity is still targeted at the individual.
“It’s as if that’s the beginning and end of the story of physical activity,” says King.
So how can the media encourage government and employers to take more responsibility for making the environment we live in activity friendly?
“The media can help make an issue visible, “says King. “We get our ideas of health from the media,” agrees Dr Bonfiglioli.
But media influences more than just our ideas; it influences our actions as well. Not just whether we act when the alarm goes off at the crack of dawn and we get up and go for a run, but whether we lobby our councillor on repairs to local parks, or ask our employer for flexible working arrangements. But unlike obesity, a lack of physical activity doesn’t have the same media appeal.
“Lack of physical activity tends to get lost in the obesity message,” says Sophie Scott, medical reporter with the ABC. “It’s a challenge to report on diet and exercise without sounding like a public service announcement,” she says. “The best way to access the media is to make the findings widely available and provide good spokespeople”.
And what the findings suggest is that physical activity is not just about individual common sense. But without the full story, it should come as no surprise to Norm 20 years on, that getting enough exercise is still not common practice.
This article was first published in Precinct in November 2011