AT this time of the year curling up on the sofa with a hot drink, a box of chocolates and watching a Christmas film sounds like an excellent way to spend an evening.
But sofas can be dangerous places. Sitting or lying down for too long increases your chances of getting heart problems, strokes, diabetes or even cancer.
Across the country one in four women and one in three men are not active enough for good health.
And it is estimated that this costs the NHS around £8.17 for every one of us each year.
Exercise is a powerful medicine and the recently published UK Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines recommend that all adults should, if possible, aim to clock up 150 minutes of moderate activity each week.
Older and frailer individuals could consider breaking up periods of sitting with light activity whenever possible – or at least standing up from time to time. The guidance also suggests activities that strengthen muscles and bones.
Research shows that both walking and cycling will improve the way your body works and lower your chances of dying young.
In addition to improving the health of the heart, lungs, brain and bones, exercise makes us feel better.
Walking also helps to treat anxiety and depression and prevents these conditions starting in the first place. It may also lower your stress levels and improve the quality of your sleep.
As a GP, I know that I don’t recommend exercise as often as I should. Perhaps this is because I am short of time or I think that prescribing cycling or brisk walking does not sound as good as prescribing a medicine. But maybe it is simply because I am not doing enough exercise myself!
In the past, most doctors attached much more importance to discussing physical activity, diet and sleep than we do today.
The ancient Roman doctor Galen spent a lot of time focusing on the things his patients ate and drank in addition to the air they breathed and how much they moved around.
He did not suggest that anyone should stop enjoying life but rather that health is about moderation – eat but don’t overeat, sleep but don’t oversleep, exercise but don’t over-exercise. He also recommended choosing exercise that is good for the body and the soul in addition to being safe.
I really like Galen’s approach and, interestingly, this accords with some recent research.
It is no good just telling someone to exercise – we all need to know what this means and if the suggestions being made are realistic and achievable. I want to get healthier, but not to become an Olympic athlete! It needs to become as easy to exercise as it is to rest.
I have always been a great advocate of walking. A walk is easy to fit around daily life and, for those who have not done much exercise before, it is important to understand that even half an hour of walking each week is a fantastic start. Those of us who are most unfit have the most to gain by even a small increase in exercise.
A couple of years ago, I joined the Yorkshire Ramblers in order to improve my own activity levels. Walking as a group is a great motivator and, across Yorkshire, we seem to be particularly fortunate in having Ramblers walks available most days in many areas.
As a GP, I have witnessed the enormous benefits that some people gain from group walking in helping them to re-connect with others and get talking again after a recent bereavement, job loss or bout of illness.
Volunteering to lead a walk can improve a person’s confidence and make them feel better about themselves. There is also evidence that walking outdoors and in woodlands is particularly helpful for individuals who are stressed, anxious or depressed.
Some people worry about doing exercise if they have other health problems such as cancer, lung disease, heart problems or arthritis. But exercising can often help these conditions. For example, many people with cancer feel much better and do much better if they continue to exercise while on treatment.
If you have any illnesses and are not exercising, the best approach is to chat to your own GP about what might be best for you. He or she might even be able to arrange for you to be given an exercise programme that is specifically tailored to you and your needs.
Also, we can all get some exercise by doing simple things around the home such as light cleaning, climbing stairs or gentle gardening.
Finally, if we can use vehicles less and get moving around under our own steam, it will improve the quality of the air that we all breathe.
It would also be wonderful to hear more birds singing again rather than just engine noise.
Nick Summerton is a GP in East Yorkshire and author.