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“I will go to gym three times a week not merely to buy sandwich,” resolves Bridget Jones in the new year resolutions that open her fictional diary.

Like most of Bridget’s other resolutions (“I will not waste money on exotic underwear since pointless as have no boyfriend”), this one lapses quickly. So do most of the millions of resolutions to exercise made every new year. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard, says experts such as herself have recently back-
pedalled from promoting vigorous physical activity. Now they merely try to persuade people to walk more, even if that does less good than actual sport. It’s the most that seems feasible.

Everyone knows exercise is good for you. Most people aspire to do more of it. But how to achieve this?

The usual mistake that adults make is to resolve to do exercise that they know is boring, chiefly going to the gym. This sort of thing is hard to sustain. To quote Bridget Jones: “7.10am. Right. Going to get up and go to gym. 7.15am . . . Will go tonight before Blind Date” etc.

Instead, we should take children as role models. They exercise all the time, but you don’t see many of them bouncing grimly on Stairmasters. Kids play sports they enjoy, usually ball games. They don’t seem to require new year resolutions to do so. Reluctant as I am to cast myself as a role model, when I was eight I used to leap out of bed at 7am on Saturdays and race to our local football ground. The gates would still be locked, but my team-mates and I would rattle them for an hour until someone finally unlocked them. We then played football for approximately six hours. It never occurred to us that this was good for us.

It’s curious that adults have exiled themselves from this Arcadia. We’ve come to think of ball games as something that kids play but that we merely watch on television. Rather than failing to go to the gym, adults could take up their favourite ball game from childhood again. They could even just play it in the park with their kids, with the additional benefit that victory would be virtually assured.

Adults are often scared of joining a sports team because they think everyone in it will be fitter and more skilful than they are, from a different social class, and unpleasant. This may turn out to be true. However, local sport is usually an efficient market. It’s full of people looking out for new team-mates or opponents, who will direct misfits to the right team or sports field. There may be a bunch of crocks playing around the corner who are perfect for you.

Often, adults plead lack of time. This is dubious, because in the European Union at least, the people who play the least sport tend to be the ones who watch most television. In any case, playing sport saves time because it helps you live longer.

Ralph Paffenbarger, the legendary American epidemiologist, posited the rule of thumb that for every hour
you exercise, you live an extra two. (Sadly this rule does not apply ad infinitum, because otherwise it would be possible to become immortal.) Taking his own advice, Paffenbarger ran marathons into his 70s, and has been spotted at academic conferences wearing a belt that read “100-mile man”.

Clearly, though, most sportsmen and women do need to save time. The best way to do this is to cut out two useless exercise-derived pursuits: obsessive talking and reading about professional sport, and obsessive talking and reading about diets à la Bridget Jones. This doesn’t mean giving up being a sports fan. Of course it’s essential to watch, say, England-Wales in the rugby. During the final England-Australia cricket Test match last summer, much of Britain wrote off five days’ work, and this was right and proper.

But sports fans can save time by not watching moronic former athletes blathering on about today’s game, not checking websites hourly for updates on transfer rumours that rarely materialise, and not debating said rumours daily in the office. An even more thorough waste of a life is pretending to manage professional teams in fantasy leagues. An estimated 12m Americans play “fantasy football”, more than twice as many as play gridiron. A ban on the former would improve public health in a week.

Governments say they want to get us exercising more. If so, they should build more playgrounds for adults. If they want to encourage walking and cycling, they could make petrol more expensive and build bike lanes, says Melvyn Hillsdon, senior lecturer in exercise and health science at Bristol University. But little of this is happening in Britain, a country that spent the 1980s and 1990s building supermarkets on sports grounds.

Governments, like couch potatoes, tend to favour exercise in the abstract but rarely to the point of actually doing anything about it. In Bridget Jones’s words: “Number of gym visits 0. Evenings spent with Jude and Shazzer 6.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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