You don’t need to have been an Olympic athlete to realise that we have a problem with inactivity in Britain.

Even if we put aside sport and just focus on physical movement, only 33 per cent of boys and 21 per cent of girls aged 4-15 meet the minimum levels of physical activity a week. Adults are no better: they fail to meet the 2.5 hours of recommended exercise per week but still manage to squeeze in 27.5 hours of TV viewing.

We forget that humans were designed to move all day and sit down to eat. Now we sit down all day and eat on the move – breaking the machine that is our body.

In the UK, more than 80 per cent of us will die of a lifestyle-related disease.

Covid has forced us to look again at the state of the nation’s health, especially to those of us who have gained weight from the age of 40 onwards. Obese people are four times more likely to end up in intensive care with Covid. However, as much as it pains me to admit it, in our search for solutions, exercise is no silver bullet.

Consider the evidence. Poor nutrition is, without a doubt, the largest behavioural problem most people face. Current dietary guidelines advise that the “carbohydrate share of calories consumed should be around 50 or even 60 per cent”. For our ancestors, it appears to have been around 30 per cent.

A diet consisting of the amount of carbohydrate we are advised to eat might be low in fat, but without excessive physical activity it will turn to fat. Further, if we consume too much carbohydrate, humans develop insulin resistance, where the body has difficulty metabolising glucose.

Then there is the rule of thumb that the more a food has been touched by human hands before we eat it, the more unhealthy it is. So it comes as no surprise that processed foods contain the most sugar and “empty” calories.

This is a problem that becomes a social justice issue because so-called “food deserts” – areas with high concentrations of fast food outlets and limited choice – are in the lowest-income areas with the highest rates of obesity. There is sadly a strong link between obesity and poverty. By the age of five, children in poverty are twice as likely to be obese as their least deprived peers. By 11, they are three times as likely. The lack of organised sport in the most deprived areas in Britain only adds to the problem.

However, the issue is more complicated for adults. The fact is that as we lose muscle mass after the age of 30, we face a decrease in metabolism. The reality is that you are fighting a losing battle the minute you get out of bed in the morning.

When I took part in the 2019 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race I was more than 20 years older than my crew mates. We had our Resting Metabolic Rate measured and mine, at 46, was 1,270 calories a day. The average of my crew mates (with a mean age of 22) was 2,380 calories a day.

Even if I did the same training and ate the same food as my crewmates each day, it was as if I was consuming a full Big Mac Meal on top even though I hadn’t gone near one. I had to manage my weight differently. Training twice a day is fairly 
extreme, but the behavioural change could apply to anyone in any situation.

As someone whose life has been associated with physical activity through enjoyment and necessity as a sportsman, I still find it staggering to learn that if a 40-year-old had the same diet and did the same amount of exercise as they did at 30, they would still put on 3.5kg a year.

This surely proves that exercise – as much as I love it – is not the silver bullet. We need help eating a healthy diet and we need effective support for those currently living with obesity. This requires the Government to do much more than it has over the past few decades.

The Government has said it will be led by science during the coronavirus crisis. Now it is time to let the science lead on the obesity debate, where we can apply the most up-to-date research to create new solutions for all age groups. We must change our understanding of obesity and how we can crack it.

Luckily, the Prime Minister already has three chapters of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan largely waiting to be implemented, so there is an easy place for him to begin. We owe it to future generations and to our beloved NHS, which cannot take much more.

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