We can all (hopefully) agree that obesity is a bad thing. It costs the NHS an estimated £6 billion per year and strips individuals of their autonomy and ability to do whatever they might want to do in life. Obesity can cause type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, exacerbate the risk of cancer and lead to mental health issues such as depression and low self-esteem.
We might also agree that exercise is a good thing, as is eating a balanced diet. But is it the government’s role to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat, to coerce us or incentivise us to do so, and to even monitor the extent of our exercise or consumption of junk food?
Led by Public Health Minister Jo Churchill, the government’s new proposed pilot scheme “will explore the best ways to incentivise adults to make healthier choices.” The scheme is inspired by other public health programmes like Singapore’s National Steps Challenge and was announced as part of “a £100 million package of government support to help those living with obesity to move closer towards a healthier weight”. It will be led by the Office for Health Promotion which will launch fully later this year under the Department of Health and Social Care.
Even if one were to argue that the government should play a role in promoting healthier living as part of its obligation to protect its citizens (which is a flimsy argument), the government does not have the means nor the right to tell us how to live our lives.
I write this as a person who is passionate about exercise but not a formal sports scientist. I’m not a marathon runner, nor am I particularly muscular or aerobically endurant, but I do believe that exercise is for everyone, and no one should be obese. I certainly do not believe that the government has any right to tell me how I should exercise and what I should eat, because they neither have the moral basis nor the scientific one to do so.
Consider the principal failure of the government’s attempt to inform our diets and training thus far: body mass index or BMI. According to BMI, I am overweight, despite me being 24 years old, around 10% body fat and relatively fit and muscular. This is because BMI is calculated according to a ratio of weight versus height, which does not consider the very simple fact that muscle is heavier than fat.
Therefore, everyone who is muscular will be regarded as overweight according to BMI, which is nonsense because having more muscle mass (whether male or female) is almost always a good thing, as your body actively burns more calories to maintain muscle mass. Someone who is not familiar with these facts might consult BMI and conclude they drastically need to lose weight based on an extremely blunt figure which doesn’t take a myriad of factors into account, such as muscularity, waist size, fat stores, bone density, base metabolic rate and other key considerations.
So if the government is going to centrally dictate who is and isn’t fat with such broad measures, how are they ever going to make accurate predictions and diagnoses when human beings are so diverse? Furthermore, how are they going to provide guidelines on how and when we should exercise and what we should and shouldn’t eat when our body shapes and our individual goals are so different?
Does the public health minister understand metabolic stress or hypertrophy? How about progressive overload, time under tension, adaptive energy or periodisation? Does anyone truly believe that they can create a “one-size-fits-all” programme that will not only motivate people to do it, but will actively generate results?
How about nutrition? If the government doesn’t know whether your primary goal is to build fat or lose muscle, nor your starting physique, how are they going to determine your macros or tell you to be in a caloric surplus or deficit? Why do they have the nerve to tell people what to do? Will they be following such pilot schemes themselves, or is this another case of “one set of rules for them and another for us”?
Marathon runners train differently to powerlifters, who train differently to gymnasts or swimmers. Everyone’s goal in sport, whether competing or not, will determine their diet and their training programme. If you want to get bigger and stronger, you will be eating and training entirely differently than a woman who has never been to the gym but wants to tone up a bit for the summer (which usually requires building muscle, by the way). Exercise and diet are already such misunderstood domains, filled with snake oil salesmen willing to tell you anything that will promise quick results and a one-size-fits-all approach to gaining muscle or losing fat. The government does not need to add themselves to this list.
Does the government know who you are, what your circumstances are and what your goals will be? They do not, nor should they tell you what those goals should be. It is your individual responsibility to determine those goals, and it should be your choice to seek out expert advice and to learn the principles needed to guide your training and nutrition towards those goals. It is not the government’s place to tell you what to eat and how to train, and they will fail miserably in doing so.
It is not the government’s obligation to stop us being overweight – instead, we must renew the communal bonds and sense of respect for each other to support each other in getting more active and bonding through sport and exercise. Everyone should try to live healthier and more balanced lives on their own terms and of their own volition, rather than allowing the government to socially engineer us to be better according to their own misguided definitions.
The way forward is to encourage each other as fellow citizens to believe that achieving your fitness and health goals is both desirable and achievable, as well as to promote an understanding of exercise as not just sit ups and burpees but anything that raises your heart rate or engages your muscles. I will always be supportive of someone who decides they want to change things for the better, and I know that fellow Britons will believe the same. The government should trust us more and pity us less, and we should take our own bodies and our own futures back into our hands instead of allowing the state to creep further and further into our daily lives.