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Why Physical Activity Promotion Policy Isn’t Helping the Fight Against Cancer… Or Why I’m Joining Cancer Research UK’s Dryathlon

Think of research into cancer and the image that comes to mind is of laboratory based research into the biological processes that cause or that might cure cancer, but the work of Cancer Research UK is about protection and possible prevention as well as causes and cures. While Cancer Research UK themselves are realistic that their goal of developing cures for all cancers won’t be achieved in our lifetime (although important advances in cancer care can and have been made), they are also clear that immediate benefits can be achieved through both research into what lifestyle choices might protect against cancer, and by understanding how information about healthy lifestyles can be communicated.
Physical Activity Policy Failure – Don’t Recommend What You Can’t Sell
One of the key components of a healthy lifestyle that has been shown to offer some protection against cancers is physical activity. Elsewhere I have argued that depending solely on physiological research into the health benefits of exercise to establish physical activity recommendations without considering how such recommendations might be communicated and received is a recipe for policy failure. And the failure of such policy is reflected in the fact that around two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women do less than the recommended levels of physical activity, with a significant proportion of those being entirely sedentary. In short, recommending what you can’t sell is pure folly.
Cancer Research UK and Physical Activity
As well as funding research into the protective possibilities of physical activity, Cancer Research UK also seeks to communicate such benefits, and to lobby for improved policy for physical activity promotion. In addition to seeking an increase in safe and accessible places for physical activity and lobbying for a greater focus on promoting the benefits of activity among older people, Cancer Research UK’s policy on physical activity is to encourage government to take a more connected and co-ordinated approach to physical activity promotion, and to increase the priority of physical activity in the school curriculum through increasing the range of opportunities for children to become more active. Unfortunately, current government policy isn’t helping on either count.
Why Government Physical Activity Promotion Policy Isn’t Helping
A lack of joined up thinking across government doesn’t make the connections (or recognise the contradictions) between policies to promote competitive sport, wider physical activities, and incidental lifestyle activity such as active travel. Disparate policies fail to recognise: (i) that competitive sport messages put off the least active; (ii) the futility of developing a product (150 minutes of exercise per week as the minimum required for health benefits) that can’t be sold to the least active; (iii) that ‘finger-wagging” at the least active for being unhealthy is counter-productive.  And the Olympics hasn’t helped: government policy needs to understand that chunky Boris Johnson careering along in a suit is a far better role model to inspire the least active to get on their bikes than a lycra-clad Sir Chris Hoy setting records in the Olympic velodrome.
Nowhere, though, is this lack of joined up thinking more evident than in policy for physical education in schools. The Olympic Games has led a misguided government, driven by sport policy imperatives, to suggest compulsory competitive sport in primary schools. Unfortunately, this outdated ideology that competitive sport universally inspires and teaches lessons for life is less likely to invoke a modern day Chariots of Fire than it is to be a throwback to Kes. And with the abolition in the year before London 2012 of School Sport Partnerships, a network of education-led professionals that understood that it takes more than competitive sport to physically educate children and young people, there is now little to offer a counterbalance to the idea of compulsory competitive team games for five year olds.
Two Reasons Why I am Joining Cancer Research UK’s January Dryathlon
This is hardly the joined up thinking or wide range of opportunities for young people to get active that Cancer Research UK are lobbying for. And it is the first reason why I am supporting Cancer Research UK in January 2013 by joining their Dryathlon, in which I won’t touch a drop of alcohol from 9am on 1st January 2013 to 9am on 1st February 2013.
The second reason?  In 2011, the year that my daughter was born, a newborn child had (and still has) a ONE IN THREE chance of being diagnosed with some form of cancer during its lifetime. Supporting an organisation that, firstly, seeks to reduce the likelihood that my daughter will develop cancer by funding research into the lifestyle choices that might protect against it, and, secondly, that supports research to increase the chances that my daughter will survive cancer if she is the unlucky one in three, is the second reason why I am going a month without alcohol, one of my favourite things. And I am not asking anyone to sponsor me, rather to NOT buy me a drink – find out how my Cancer Research UK Dryathlon will work HERE.
I’ll be micro-blogging daily 280 character updates on my Dryathlon progress on my JUST GIVING site, and will re-tweet some of these via @ProfMikeWeed on Twitter. If you would like to support my Cancer Research UK Dryathlon, you might like to know that my usual tipple is a pint or two of Coors, which can probably be bought for around £2.50 in the cheaper parts of the UK. So if you would like to support the work of Cancer Research UK by NOT buying me a couple of drinks in January, please text “COOR52 £5” to 70070.
Cures for all cancers are some way off, but the work of Cancer Research UK demonstrates that more effective physical activity promotion policy might help individuals make lifestyle choices that might protect against cancer. Please support my Dryathlon and support Cancer Research UK.

About ProfMikeWeed

Professor of Applied Policy Sciences | Head of Human and Life Sciences | Strategic Director, Centre for Sport, Physical Education & Activity Research (SPEAR) | Editor, Journal of Sport & Tourism


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