Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Ideal or minimum standard?

A short 'other musings' post this one.

Let's face it, when it comes to health advice (healthy eating, lifestyle, exercise, etc) most people tend to follow a chain of reactions which goes something like this:

  • Advice given (through personal contact, TV, media, etc),
  • Initial thoughts about health and mortality,
  • Short-term attempt at making some changes (which lasts from a few days to a few weeks/months),
  • Fading memory of initial advice,
  • Back to pre-advice default position

I am not saying that everyone does this, because in the case of smoking for example, a lot of people do quit and do not go back to tobacco again. What I am saying is that our initial 'shock' followed by 'enthusiasm' to fundamentally change things related to our health is generally short-lived barring any significant 'scare' to us as individuals or those close to us.

In such cases I have often thought that the best way to effect a change is to provide people with a rough idea of what the 'bare minimum' constitutes. So, rather than setting goals to attain - the so called 'ideal', draw a line below which things should not fall. A recent article appearing in the Lancet did just that. The paper by Chi Pang Wen and colleagues* based in Taiwan provided a benchmark for physical activity in Taiwanese populations about what the minimum requirement is for physical activity for reduced mortality and extending life expectancy. They reported that, based on various statistics and reports of risk (there's that word again), 15 minutes of activity of moderate intensity a day at least helps in reducing the risk of various life-limiting complaints.

Already this study has invoked opinion after opinion on the results, as well as some quite sensational headlines suggesting things like 'every hour of TV watching takes 22 minutes of your life' (this is from the same paper which described an 'Asperger gene' and a man with Asperger syndrome as being a pathological liar which are concepts I am still trying to comprehend).

Health is of course important to all. It is not until you don't have good health that you realise just how important it is. Communicating health and healthy practices is always going to be a challenge for Governments and other agencies, not least when the evidence is not necessarily just straight-forward for all people. The decision facing the various health authorities can be essentially boiled down to this: do they communicate the 'ideal' standards or should they communicate the 'minimum standard'?

* Chi Pang Wen et al. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Lancet. August 2011