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On October 23, 2015

What impact can healthier lifestyles have on the NHS? When thinking about bad habits, consider this: if prolonged sitting is the new smoking, and excess sugar consumption is the new nicotine, and a brisk walk each day could add seven years to your life expectancy, is it fair to say that the financial burden on the NHS could all but be removed if we were to simply take more ownership of our own wellbeing?

Simon Stevens, NHS England’s CEO, is set to lead by example by shaping up our health services’ workforce. Staff absence due to poor health cost the NHS £2.4bn a year, so what are potential savings if patients follow suit?

Stevens’ Five Year Forward View calls for us to take action on prevention and claims that “if the nation fails to get serious about prevention, then recent progress in healthy life expectancies will stall, health inequalities will widen, and our ability to fund beneficial new treatments will be crowded-out by the need to spend billions of pounds on wholly avoidable illness.”

Basically, a better future is possible if patients are empowered to take much more control over their own care and treatment.

The steps set out in Steven’s plan are laudable and welcomed, and one of the most forward thinking certainly in my lifetime. To make his vision a reality, is it now time for some tough love, and make citizens more accountable for their own health and wellbeing.  Every UK citizen has a choice, but if your choice is that of excess sugar, alcohol and indolence, then there is a price to pay.

I am not talking about privatising the healthcare system. I am talking about a system that does not just address what the NHS can do for the citizen, but what the citizen can do for the NHS.

A healthy marriage?

The NHS and its relationship with the average citizen is similar to marriage – both committing to look after each other until death do us part.

We need a pre-nuptial agreement, so-to-speak, that would compel our citizens to live their lives to the fullest potential by eating well, moving regularly, avoiding harmful substances and every once in a while unplugging from the stimulus of a modern digital life and having some fun.

Public education on this issue is also important, and Steven’s view covers all of the ground expected of a responsible custodian of our health and wellbeing, everything from national information and labelling to marketing and pricing.

Do we need to take more responsibility for monitoring the consumption of sugary drinks to our young people? Stevens states we have the highest consumption in all of Europe, but should the foot the bill when that young person’s health is put at risk, either now or in the future? Is it not fair and reasonable to ask that parents and individuals take heed of the education and act conscientiously?

Moving in a different direction

Recently, I happened upon a personal trainer of a different kind, one who does not advocate excess hours in a spin class or pounding on a treadmill day after day, or even setting a time-limited goal of running a marathon or a 10 kilometre road race. What happens after you cross the finish line and you return to your old ways? Have you truly achieved your goal?

Instead, his first piece of advice, when I told him of my eternal quest to lose this extra baby weight that I carry around with me nowadays (my daughter has just turned three, so the “I’ve just had a baby!” line doesn’t wash with anyone, including myself anymore!) was to quit sugar, kick the habit, break free from the cravings.

Had I just asked him to help me quit smoking? Sounds like the sort of advice an NHS smoking cessation clinic would extol. But no, the more I read, and understand just how much excess sugar is contributing to the state of our nation’s health, the more I applaud the ambitions of Steven’s plan.

More and more published studies are detailing how it is sugar, and not fat, that triggers heart disease and is undeniably linked to diabetes, certain cancers and premature ageing.

His second piece of advice – move! Keep moving like primitive man would have done, do not give in to this sedentary life, but instead think of how our ancestors would have hunted, gathered, and foraged, always on the move, always building stronger bones and joints.

Sounds revolutionary – cut out the sugar and move more and you will live longer, preventing those avoidable diseases that Steven’s speaks of, that burden our NHS. Take responsibility for your own body, a machine that was designed to walk extensively and sprint once in a while. Ultimately it’s evolutionary, it’s about survival of the fittest.

Time for responsibility

This sense of individual responsibility can help free the NHS up to focus on caring for the elderly, injured, mentally ill and those with learning difficulties, and take a firm stance on this unhealthy nation to do something about their own health and wellbeing.

I do not agree with Stevens when he says that “our nation remains unwavering in that commitment to universal healthcare, irrespective of age, health, race, social status or ability to pay.” Unwavering, is too strong in my opinion, something has to give, and I think now is the time that we as a nation say, enough is enough!

As a nation we have taken the generosity of all that our national health service stands for, and turned it in to an unhappy marriage. The bride, the NHS in this case, has kept her side of the bargain, but the groom, the public, has let himself go! Let’s redress the balance and ask the citizens of this country to get up off their comfy couches and embrace this new movement of health and wellbeing.

If moving is the new black, then sugar-free is the new revolutionary, or is that evolutionary, movement.


Leesa Ewing, commercial director, IMS MAXIMS

  • blog, Healthier Lifestyle, ims maxims, NHS, NHS England, Simon Stevens


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