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Why Is It So Hard To Get People To Care About Preventing Disease?

05/30/2017 11:10 EDT | Updated 05/30/2017 11:15 EDT

Everyone knows the story about frogs. Drop them in hot water and they'll hop right out. But drop them in cold water and ever so slowly bring it to a boil, and they'll stay put.

Humans are more like frogs than we care to admit. We too are great at jumping out of bad situations. In a crisis, we are quick to take decisive action. But just like frogs, we're slow to act when bad situations come about more slowly. When problems unfold over the course of decades, we fail to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Too often, we let the water get far too hot.

Physical Inactivity in Canada - A Hot Water Situation

Physical inactivity is one of those hot water situations. Over the past 30 years our activity levels have steadily declined to the point where just one in five adults and one in 10 kids regularly get enough heart-pumping activity. But the process has been a slow one -- so slow that many have failed to react.

family exercise

Even worse, the full extent of the health consequences of our current inactivity will only truly be felt in the decades to come. But make no mistake, the costs are already staggering and will only continue to rise. Billions of dollars are spent each year treating cases of chronic disease that could have been prevented. Hundreds of thousands of lives have already ended prematurely.

Yet the idea that we're in the midst of an inactivity crisis is one that's surprisingly hard to appreciate. We can see the bubbles starting to form, yet are unwilling to hop to action.

The True Cost of Inactivity: An Eye-Opening US Study

A recent study published in Health Affairs estimates that if every child got an hour of heart-pumping physical activity each day, the U.S. could save $120 billion every year. Over the lifespan of today's children, the direct healthcare costs associated with inactivity are estimated to be $1.1 trillion. Lost productivity over that same time is estimated to be $1.7 trillion.

The statistics in Canada, while on a smaller scale, are comparable. In 2009, it was estimated that inactivity cost the Canadian economy $6.8 billion. But because the problem has crept up slowly, and the consequences dispersed over decades, it doesn't really seem like a crisis.

Our failure to appreciate the dire situation before us is seen in our current commitments to disease prevention. Approximately just five per cent of our health-care budget is allocated to preventing, rather than treating, disease.

The One Cool Thing

The good news, in an otherwise bleak situation, is that physical activity is often good at both treating and preventing disease. When it comes to dementia, for example, physical activity has been shown to both prevent its onset and slow its progression.

elderly exercise

Though, there are of course limitations. Starting to run at 65 can't undo a lifetime of inactivity. Lifting weights alone won't cure cancer.

But some of the benefits of increasing physical activity levels are immediate. Some health conditions can be reversed and the progression of disease lessened. Risks of developing certain chronic conditions can be lowered almost overnight.

Why So Few People Care

Despite the good news, the problem of getting people to care about prevention is extremely hard to tackle.

Naturally, we're drawn to things that happen, not things that don't. No one cared about the levees in New Orleans until they broke. Increased security measures at airports were enacted in the days following 911. Financial reform became a priority only after the housing market crashed. History is littered with examples of acute crises bringing about immediate action.

Unfortunately, it's also filled with examples of our collective inability to truly appreciate slowly unfolding problems. Climate change. Income inequality. Species extinction. Obesity. These are all problems that have slowly crept up. Problems that will undoubtedly negatively affect our lives and the lives of our children. Problems that could have been prevented.

The Truth About Frogs

Though we're all familiar with the hot water story, the idea that frogs won't hop out as water starts to boil is actually a myth. Scientists have shown they do.

At ParticipACTION, we strongly believe people can too. We can get out of the hot water before more damage is done. We can shift from being reactive to proactive. Over the next 25 years, hundreds of thousands of lives can be lengthened. Billions of dollars can be saved.

Start living an active life now because, whether you realize it or not, the water is already warm.

But headline statistics won't solve the problem. While they might sound alarming, you and I both know they're easily forgotten. Psychologists have shown that stats don't stick.

What's important is the story. And right now, that story is about you, because that's where change starts. It starts when you hop out of the hot water and take preventative action. When you start living an active life every day -- not because you had a health scare and not because you were faced with a crisis. Stories like that are already too common.

Start living an active life now because, whether you realize it or not, the water is already warm. That's not a scare tactic. That's not to pass judgement. That's a fact.

On a personal level, the physical inactivity crisis is unfolding every day. People miss work. They struggle with high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and poor mental health. They feel stressed and restless and unfulfilled. The bubbles are everywhere if you really care to look.

We've gotten used to the hot water, but it's high time we all hopped out.

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