Were our parents lifestyles healthier than ours?

Were our parents lifestyles healthier than ours?

Ah, the good old days. Lots of healthy outdoor work, fresh vegetables and a more relaxed pace of life. But is this just a nostalgic image of the past, or were our parents’ lifestyles really healthier than ours? And if so, what can we learn from them?

During the last four decades our lives have changed in countless ways. We are now educated for longer, eat a wider range of foods, take more holidays, go to the gym more and smoke far less. In many ways we are much healthier than our parents.

Life expectancy is perhaps the most significant area of change. Back in 1970, the days of mini-dresses and The Beatles, a man could expect to live to 68.7 years, and a women to 75 years old. Today male life expectancy is 77.8 years, and 81.9 years for women – a big difference!

So what is the reason for this increase? The main difference is believed to be the drop in smoking rates. While 51% of men and 41% of women puffed away each day in 1974, this has now dropped to 21% of adult males and 17% of adult women (still a surprising number perhaps, considering how much we’ve learned about its dangers).

However, although we can expect to live for longer, our more affluent lifestyle brings other problems, the main one being obesity.

In fact, obesity is the number one factor affecting our health over the last forty years. It’s a definite trend which still shows no sign of stopping. Since the 1960s we have been steadily gaining weight as a nation, when 2% of adults were classed as obese, compared to about 26% today.

So why were people so much slimmer in the 1960s?

You can probably guess this one. Yes – more activity! People simply moved around a lot more years ago. Not because they were necessarily more disciplined, just because they had do because their lifestyles were completely different to ours. With only three out of ten people owning a car most people had to rely on their own steam to get places.

The comparisons are a stark reminder of how much our activity levels have decreased. In the late 60s three-quarters of adults walked for at least half an hour each day, compared to just 42 per cent of us in 2010. Walking or cycling to school and work was also much more commonplace.

The key point is that physical activity was an everyday part of life, rather than something independent to schedule in between other work. This routine activity was great for all ages, as children saw their parents walking much more, rather than automatically jumping in the car to pop to the shops (or the gym!)  

Even housework played a role in higher activity levels. People in the 1970s spent over twice as long doing chores, including walking to several different shops, cooking and washing dishes. Of course, this was mainly women, but it meant that weight was easier to keep off.

Considering all those extra calories burned each day, without even trying, it’s not surprising that our parents didn’t have to think much about counting calories. Vegetables were eaten in larger portions, and frozen food was also rarer, so more regular trips needed to be made to the shops for fresh produce, resulting in more activity. Being overweight was also much less common, so anyone who did pile on the pounds was keen to get back to a healthy weight.

Fathers of the 1970s were much more likely to be involved in adventure sports than their modern, technology-infused sons. A recent study from the University of St Andrews suggests that today’s young men have declining enthusiasm for exciting activities like scuba-diving, mountaineering and skiing. This could be put down to lower fitness levels and lack of motivation compared to the 1970s male.

Modern technology, as wonderful as it is, also decreases our activity.  In the 1960s there were just 10.5m television sets, compared with 74m predicted by 2020. Our relentless love of the screen means that the average adults sits on their inactive backside watching TV for 20 hours a week, and that’s not including the other time we spend looking at our phones and computers. It all adds up to much less movement.

So were our parents healthier than us? In some ways they were and in others they weren’t. Our challenge is to look at what worked well for them (i.e. higher activity levels) and look at what we’re not so good at (i.e. eating more junk food), and try to keep the best and ditch the rest! 

In all fairness, it was much easier for our parents to be healthier. The proliferation of unhealthy foods, and sedentary lifestyles combined with busy timetables means it’s much more difficult for people nowadays to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle.

But that’s no excuse not to be healthy, and hopefully most payasUgym users are up for the challenge of keeping healthy despite the temptations of our modern era!



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