It's official. We are more obese and sedentary then we have ever been, and the trend is only going in one direction.
In the past fortnight we have read stories about the alarming amounts of sugar our children are eating for breakfast, how inactive and overweight the middle-aged population are. On top of that, we already know that a huge number of children are leaving primary school overweight and obese and that over 3.8 million people in the UK have diabetes. Shall I go on?
The NHS is creaking at the seams as thousands, if not millions of people consume diets that are too full of sugar coupled with too much time spent sitting down. When you think about it, it's true; We wake up, we sit down for breakfast, we watch TV, we sit in the car, we sit at our desks for 8 hours, we sit in the car, we sit down for dinner, we watch more TV, then we lie down and go to sleep. Repeat.
We are more inactive and sedentary than our parents and our grandparents. Children play with phones and computers instead of balls and bicycles. Technology is making convenience the number one objective. Daily chores and tasks can be completed with the click of a button, takeaways delivered to our doors with the swipe of a thumb, and services like Uber make it too easy for us to rely on four wheels instead of our own two feet.
Okay, so that's the problem. Not great is it? But what is the solution?
Whilst it would be naive and unrealistic to think that the government, the sugar lobby, the NHS, regulation of advertising & supermarket prices, sugar content in our food etc can all be reversed overnight, the solution is simple and free - be more active.
Exercise. Anyone who has been for a walk in a park, a run, a bike ride, a swim can tell you the buzz and feeling afterwards is euphoric, for the mind and the body. Anecdotally we all know this is true, and science & research back this up, but are we really encouraging people to move more?
We do not need a nation of Olympians - there is a middle ground. We don't need everyone climb Kilamanjaro, we just need more people to move more, walk more, take the stairs instead of the lift, the bike instead of the car. This is the key message that is being missed.
To help encourage and promote this message, there is one obvious yet overlooked solution that is all around us and compared with the other solutions, extremely low-cost: Marketing.
There is a general perception that people who are obese and inactive do not want to help themselves, and as such they are written off, destined for a shortened life of medication and treatment for preventable and reversible conditions. But is this actually true?
I have always believed that if you present exercise and physical activity in a way that is honest, fun, inclusive and accessible, people will help themselves. There needs to be more carrot and less stick (not just because it's one of your five a day).
As human beings, and particularly Brits, none of us really like being told what to do. This huge and growing (no pun intended) section of the population are constantly being told they are fat, lazy, and a burden to the NHS. Now I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure they already know that. So instead of reminding people of their problems and how it is (not always) their own fault, why does marketing in the health, fitness and sports industries not speak to people in a way that is encouraging, honest and most importantly, reflective of reality?
We are effectively saying to people "You are fat and lazy and you need to do something about it" when we should be saying "We think it is so great that you have decided to make a positive lifestyle change, and we will help you". The more people are shamed into exercise, the more likely they will approach it with the wrong mindset, have a bad experience, and will be subsequently likely to continue in the future.
January is the biggest and worst example of this. People who are overweight and inactive are body-shamed and guilt-tripped. Turn on the TV, radio or pickup any magazine or newspaper (yes they still exist) and you will see adverts and promotions for gym memberships, sportswear, training plans, diets, all of which are reminding people of all their flaws and previously bad habits.
We are encouraging drastic, short-term, unsustainable, unrealistic lifestyle changes in exchange for quick profits. Realistically, is someone who is obese suddenly going to attend the gym five times per week whilst living off a stick of celery and tomato soup? Instead of offering a helping hand to those who wish to improve their quality of life for the better, the industry is circling overhead like vultures, selling trainers and fighting for every penny while this short-lived enthusiams lasts.
The following questions need to be asked and answered honestly:
- Do gyms really want us to be more active - or do they want joining fees and annual subscriptions?
- Do fitness brands really want to make us fitter and healthier - or do they want to sell more pairs of trainers?
- Do fitness magazines really want to help us live better lifestyles - or do they want to body-shame and sell advertising space?
Okay I sound naive - I appreciate that from a business and sales perspective, presenting people with an aspirational, best possible version of themselves makes money, especially in January. Deep down we all want to be better, and we are willing to pay for it - but what about the bigger picture? What about Public Health?
For obvious reasons I will use running for my example. Running is one of the cheapest and most accessible exercise options you can possibly participate in. You can do it anywhere, anytime, without any equipment, referee or facilities. So it must be for everyone, right?
Not if you pick up any running magazine or browse the websites of running retailers and brands. If you do, I am confident you will see a slim, manicured, athletic-looking individual, who is probably running on top of a mountain in Colorado or along a sandy beach in Australia, without a hair out of place or a drop of sweat in sight. I'm pretty sure these people could not even spell Fartlek, let alone tell you what it's like when you get chafing under your armpit during a race or a blister at mile 2 of a long run.
Now take someone who is say, a 40-year old overweight, inactive smoker from Reading (no disrespect to Reading) - looking from the outside, would you think "That could be me" or would you think "I will never look like that, what's the point?" - would this inspire someone to lace up their trainers and start the journey, or turn on the TV and order a takeaway?
There is a clear contradiction between insisting that running and exercise are for everyone, and using language and imagery which clearly does not represent the majority of participants and speaks to such a small percentage of the population. If there is to be a clear bias towards one cross-section of the overall population, then undoubtedly it should speak and present to those who are overweight and inactive, surely?
Running is for everyone and the average runner is not that which you see in the magazines and on race and clothing websites. To try to put this into context, and show exactly what the average marathon runner in the UK achieves:
Average 2014 UK Marathon times:
Women - 4 hours 42 minutes 33 seconds
Men - 4 hours 13 minutes 23 seconds
Average 2015 London Marathon times
Women - 4 hours 39 minutes 27 seconds
Men - 4 hours 04 min 23 secs
We aren't breaking world records are we? But would this be immediately obvious by browsing the industry? Marketing does not reflect and speak to the running masses, let alone the wider population and those people who may not even walk up the stairs without taking the lift. How can we encourage more people to start walking and running when we are ignoring them and discouraging them by presenting a reality of the sport that is completely false?
As someone who initially got into running to lose weight in 2011, and who has progressed to run marathons, I can tell any beginners or those thinking about running, that what you see, hear, watch and read is completely unrepresentative of what runners and running looks like. And as someone who developed an eating disorder trying to lose weight to fit the false stereotypical body image of a runner, none of it is true.
Marketing across the industry and the companies who supply it should not be trying to make the fittest and healthiest people in the UK fitter and healthier. Instead of making the sharp end sharper, we should be focusing on the back of the field to those people who need extra encouragement and have most to gain from positive lifestyle changes.
We are not being honest with people. You know what, running is actually really hard. Slogging away alongside a motorway in November or pounding the pavements of the cul-de-sac down the road in January is, let's be honest, hard work and uninspiring.
But it is also one of the most rewarding, satisfying, social activities you will ever undertake. You will meet more people, friends and have more honest interaction than any gym or pilates class. Crossing the finish line is one of the greatest senses of achievement you can ever experience - you did, you on your own with your own two feet.
We should not be trying to build a nation of elite marathon runners - we should be simply trying to get people to move more, whether they walk, jog or run, or swim, bike, hike, play tennis, or just climb the stairs - and enjoy it enough so it becomes habitual for them and their children and so on. So why is this not obvious when searching for running shoes, or looking for a race, or browsing a magazine?
We are faced with an public health obesity epidemic and we all know it - yet nobody is talking to the people who have most to gain, and from who society has most to benefit. The people who are in a position to instigate change by changing the message and picture, choose not to.
Public health is something that we all need to worry about, and marketing has a crucial role. We need our friend from Reading to realise that he doesn't need a six-pack to change his life for the better, and that just because he'll never run a good for age marathon time, doesn't mean he can't drastically improve his quality of life.
What me need to see from everyone connected with the fitness and running industry is this:
- We need to use real images of real people.
- We need to focus on the average person and show them what they are capable of.
- We need to tell stories from real people who have succeeded on this journey, not indulge celebrities.
- We need to use language that encourages rather than shames - stop making people feel guilty or shame or inferiority
We don't need a populations of Olympians - judging by the medal table in Rio we have enough of them. We just need people to be more active. Ultimately we need to start putting public health before profits, and inspire people to make a change by showing them that it's never too late.