Amidst critcisim of Britain as the third most inactive nation on the plant, Dr. Kieron O'Hara of the University of Southampton blogs on the balance between a healthy and a happy person.
Another week, another health warning. This time, some Brazilian Herbert has decided that two thirds of British adults do not take enough exercise to stay healthy. Some Harvard types claim that lack of exercise ranks alongside smoking and obesity in terms of its contribution to disease. A fitness wallah called Batt laments that “physical activity should be ingrained in daily routines and our way of life, but this is simply not the case at the moment.”
Now, there are a number of reasons why this is not the case. One of them is that haring about like a lunatic is extraordinarily dull, and only dullards enjoy it. It is easy enough to exercise, and I am happy to concede that it would improve the functioning of our bodies, but there are aesthetic and opportunity costs that sports experts, even ones from Harvard, tend to ignore. Each minute spent at the gym is a minute not spent reading Proust, or Jane Austen, or listening to Mozart; the resulting deprivation of mental stimulation is why gyms are full of perfectly sculpted Narcissistic half-wits. Cycling to work is hardly difficult, and in some of our cities probably quicker. But one would then smell and look uncool like other cyclists; over time one would probably also become as sanctimonious and dangerous to pedestrians.
Britain apparently has the third most inactive population in the world, and in Olympic year I am rather inclined to celebrate this bronze medal performance, though also determined to overtake the bone idle Maltese and Serbs who are above us in the table. I shall certainly do my bit. The most active nation in the world, according to the Brazilian chappie, is Greece, which is probably why they have sports stadia with tumbleweed blowing through them and a national debt to put an English beer belly to shame. They have obviously been too busy doing squat thrusts and bench presses to provide goods and services that anyone else might actually want.
Doctors, like everyone else, view the world in a particular way. They see us as, effectively, machines, and they define success as continued unaided function. Fair enough – nothing wrong with that, and we would all like our fleshly envelopes to move without aching, cracking or squeaking. But this machine-life is only a fragment of the full human condition; we have other needs. Living till we are 102 is sort of OK, but neither necessary nor sufficient for a nice life. The returns on longevity will diminish.
We have other pleasures to seek than those that keep us healthy. Salt is bad for us, but as anyone eating a healthy supermarket ready meal will testify, when we are careful with its application our food doesn’t taste of anything. Fruit and vegetables are splendid things in their own way, but it is simply not possible to eat thirty-five servings of them per week without losing the will to live.
It is disconcerting that these health messages – which are never adequate enough for the doctors, always needing strengthening – are disseminated by the same governments that spread incompatible messages about how we should behave in other spheres of life. For instance, we need a more competitive economy, so those of us able to find jobs now have to work every hour God sends. And when we stagger home exhausted in dire need of a snifter, some health Nazi gleefully informs us that the dry martini we have just prepared (a drink so medicinal it should be on prescription) is actually 114% of our recommended intake of alcohol for the week.
If they want us to be competitive, they should let us drink what we need; if they want us to live to be 102, then we shouldn’t be working like maniacs. A limit of 21 units of booze per week is simply nonsense, beyond normality, like suggesting that everyone should be four feet tall. And if on top of that Draconian and arbitrary threshold we should also have 2-3 alcohol-free days per week, as the Royal College of Physicians recommends, then we should get 2-3 work-free days per week as well (like doctors do).
This is what happens when the rounded human being (I mean that figuratively rather than literally) is considered solely as a machine; her mental health, well-being and general mellowness are irrelevant to the Cartesians in the medical profession. All they want is a nation of spindly centenarians. Culture, relaxation, friendship and aesthetic appreciation are simply discounted as fripperies.
And of course, when they take charge and we are all forced to obey them, there are unintended consequences – but because the doctors are concerned only with the bodily machine, they care not a fig for these consequences. Yet they matter.
The smoking ban probably seemed like a great wheeze (if you see what I mean), and no doubt we are healthier as a result. Maybe office buildings look better with a little frozen huddle of lost souls puffing away on the front step. But the other major result of the ban has been the decimation of the public house, one of the few magical British institutions that is the envy of the world. “It’s great that I can go to the pub for a night without coming home with my clothes all smelling of smoke” says the non-smoker, but the flaw in this argument is of course that the non-smoker doesn’t want to go to the pub anyway, so it is a spectacular non sequitur.
And if the health maniacs get their way and we all live to 102, that means (assuming a retirement age of 67) 35 post-work years, all of which have to be paid for by generations to come. Maybe 20 of those 35 years will be spent in less-than-perfect health, which means a further burden, both to the workers of the time and to one’s own children and grandchildren. This is unaffordable of course. It is also inequitable to the unhealthy – by the remorseless logic of the actuarial bean counters, smokers and drinkers should get bigger pensions, as they will have the good grace and manners to drop dead well before they outstay their welcome.
Too much of anything is undoubtedly wrong – surely Aristotle was right to argue that virtue lies between deficiency and excess. Whether one likes fine wine with fine food, or ice cold lager with a flavoursome curry, one should beware of going overboard. And one should ensure that one’s cigarette smoke or alcoholic bonhomie don’t inconvenience one’s neighbours. Sure. But giving up several pleasures, even minor ones, has a cumulatively major effect on the quality of one’s life. Sacrificing them for the sake of a couple of extra decades (or for the pleasure of seeing one’s nation rise up the Brazilian doctor’s league table) looks like a terrible personal bargain, and one that will ruin the economy to boot.
Ultimately, this is about personal responsibility, liberty and privacy. We have compromised enough with the health lobby. There are other values than longevity, and we should stand up for them.
Dr. Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. His latest book, 'Conservatism', was published in May 2011 by Reaktion Books.