An inquiry into the sloth of nations

There are nations where people are always on the go, according to studies published by the British medical journal the Lancet this week. Greece, Guatemala, India and Russia are such places. In these active societies, whatever their flaws, most citizens get enough exercise to prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. That means about two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise or an hour of strenuous exercise per week. Other countries, such as the US, are more sedentary. And there is a group of countries that are astonishingly, self-destructively inert, where exercise seems to consist of squeezing the remote control and pulling the tops off of lager tins, where fewer than half of men and women fill their weekly quota of recommended movement. These countries include Argentina, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and – to the chagrin of the Lancet’s readers – Britain. The Economist described the study as a “map of sloth”. The Guardian’s Datablog credited it with having identified “the laziest countries on earth”. …

The old western model was to put in a gruelling work day and relax with a beer at the end of it. The new model is to loaf on the job and punish oneself at the gym or on the bike trail. This is not necessarily an improvement. If your work is so easy that you need to fill up your free time with bodily maintenance to avoid falling ill, then “free” might be a misnomer.

Clearly we are doing something right. For upwards of a century, longevity in industrialised countries has been increasing by two or three months a year. But westerners have a provincial idea of what physical activity is. There are still countries where people pick cotton all day, or mine gold with pickaxes. Western scientists writing about fitness have traditionally focused on leisure activity, not work activity, one of the Lancet scientists writes. This often meant casting a man who harvests rice from dawn till dusk as less “active” than a 20-stone computer programmer who rides an exercise bike or steps on a treadmill once a fortnight. It also left the impression that “physical inactivity was more frequent in people with low income.” It is a false impression. There has always been a reason why those who do physical labour are described as putting in “an honest day’s work”.