Feeling fed up? Go out and take a hike

About one million New Zealand adults are now clinically obese. You may have missed that startling statistic. It was included in the Ministry of Health's New Zealand Health Survey 2011-12 released during the pre-Christmas rush, perhaps while you were stocking up with festive pies and puddings and pavlovas.

The survey said that 28 per cent of the adult population is obese, and that this rate has been increasing steadily since 1997. Another 35 per cent is overweight, meaning that nearly two-thirds of the adult population are bigger than they ought to be. Despite our best efforts, collectively we've been getting fatter for years.

The report also included statistics on how much people exercise, which were roughly in line with those in another survey conducted by the Southern Cross Health Society. This found that 7 per cent of Christchurch respondents never exercised, while 17 per cent said they exercised less than once a week. A further 11 per cent said they exercised only once a week, and 23 per cent said they exercised two or three times a week.

The good news is that 42 per cent of Christchurch respondents exercised regularly, with 18 per cent saying they exercised four or five times a week, 17 per cent exercising once a day and 7 per cent exercising more than once a day.

The two sets of data are, of course, not unrelated. Despite the efforts of the diet and fitness industries to overcomplicate things, our size depends on a simple equation of basic physics. If the calories consumed through diet exceeds the number of calories expended through activity, we get fatter. Tip the balance the other way and we shrink.

That is the theory. In practice things are more difficult and despite New Year resolutions to eat less and exercise more, real life has a habit of getting in the way of good intentions. In Christchurch right now, real life is doubly complicated for many people, especially those still struggling with the nightmare of EQC and insurance claims, TC3 zoning and so on. At times of such stress, getting regular exercise can slip down the priority list. Some will have resorted to smoking and drinking more to ease their way through daily life.

Stress, obesity, poor diet, disturbed sleep, smoking and drinking too much all have a detrimental effect on overall health. Most of these factors are associated with a higher risk of heart disease. It is too soon yet to draw any conclusions about the effect of the earthquakes on Cantabrians' health overall, but common sense should tell us that these are riskier times, and people need to look after themselves better.

A good starting point is to be more active. The physical health benefits are obvious and doctors tell us that some mental health issues, stress, sleeping difficulties and even depression can be eased by exercising more. For some people this will mean joining a gym, taking a zumba class, or training for a marathon, but really, any exercise at all is better than none, and people who are not naturally sporty would be better not to set their sights too high. How many gym memberships bought in a burst of self-righteous resolve at the beginning of January have been neglected long before their expiry date, once the novelty has worn off and reality once more takes over?

The best exercise plans, especially for the habitually slothful, are those which can be easily accommodated into daily routines. Walk to the dairy instead of taking the car. Take the stairs instead of the lift. Leave the office at lunchtime and stroll around the block. Join a walking bus to the school gate instead of wrangling the children into the four-wheel drive.

The Ministry of Health's advice is to view movement as an opportunity, not an inconvenience; to be active every day in as many ways as possible; to do at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most if not all days of the week and, if possible, add something more vigorous. It may seem like a lot but those who stick to it feel better for making the effort.

The Press