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International experts debate physical activity motivation

Health experts China, Scotland and the US agree that our motivation to be physically active could be the secret to tackling “the biggest public health challenge of the 21st century” and stopping ourselves from “collectively sleepwalking into obesity”. But what motivates us to be physically active? Is it in our genes, our surroundings or the advice we receive from others? This is where their perspectives differ.


In Australia in the 1970s it only took seeing a commercial for the national physical activity campaign Life. Be in it. to prompt cartoon couch potato "Norm" to get up and go for a walk. But new research in China, Scotland and the US is showing how complex this task can be when factors such as genetic mutation, social deprivation and lack of advice about exercise from GPs come into play.


A combined study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing and the University of Aberdeen, reported by the Australian Associated Press, revealed that a mutation in a particular gene in the brain could influence a person’s physical activity levels. The researchers initially carried out their study on mice, and then found that the genetic mutation they identified in mice with tendencies to move less and gain weight was also evident in Chinese patients with metabolic syndrome.   


The study’s suggestion that medication may be able to increase a person’s desire to be active could have an impact on how patients suffering from overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases are treated in the future.


So, too, could calls from Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns and American academic Professor Steven Blair, from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina to educate general practitioners (GPs) to prescribe physical activity to their patients rather than focusing solely on their calorie consumption.


They believe that education and advice about physical activity is essential in tackling these health issues, and that by stressing the positive links between exercise and weight loss, professionals in public health have the power to motivate their patients to change without medication. 


“In simple terms, we are talking about changing the mind-set from thinking ‘I must go on a diet’ to ‘I must become more active’,” Professor Blair told participants at a conference organised by the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in February (source: Herald Scotland).


“An entire industry has built up around diet, but reducing our dietary intake alone will not solve our problems with obesity. Physical inactivity has become the biggest public health challenge of the 21st century and we have to become more active if we are to stop collectively sleepwalking into obesity.”


GP in Scotland struck back at the criticism in an article in The Scotsman prior to the conference, claiming that short consultation times limited their role as physical activity advocates and educators. Burns also admitted that socio-economic deprivation was a significant barrier to physical activity among the more reluctant participants.


But despite the complex nature of personal and outside factors influencing physical activity motivation, the new research is a sign that physical activity is receiving serious attention in the health sector – if not as an outright cure, but as a vital part of prevention and treatment for some of the world’s deadliest conditions.


By Rachel Payne, ISCA


Read the article about genetic factors at The West Australian newspaper’s website


Read the debate surrounding the conference in Edinburgh:

The Scotsman

Herald Scotland

Daily Record