In July, top medical journal The Lancet published a series of articles looking the worldwide health problems caused by people being inactive, in the hope of galvanising action.
The articles contained a bold, eye-catching claim that the worldwide impact was “comparable to the impact of smoking” – some 5 million deaths worldwide.
This was widely reported in the media, with the tabloids taking a characteristically bombastic tone (“You lazy lot!” cried the Daily Express), and other news outlets toeing a similar line.
There’s no doubt that a wide range of what researchers call ‘non-communicable’ diseases – heart disease, type-2 diabetes and, of concern to us at Cancer Research UK, certain types of cancer – become more common the less active a life people lead; nor is it a surprise that many of us lead less-than-perfect lives when it comes to getting enough exercise.
But is comparing inactivity to smoking valid, based on the available evidence? We spoke to Professor Max Parkin, a Cancer Research UK-funded statistician from the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine in London, to get his take on the story.
Professor Parkin was the man behind our landmark study on preventable causes of cancer last year, and an expert in this field.
He felt that, without wanting to detract from urgent need for government action on inactivity, the comparison was an ‘exaggeration’, which could potentially confuse people about the relative importance of different risks to their health.