Saturday, 19th June 2021


The mechanisation of work

The inevitable consequence of having machinery take over much of manual work was the reduction of the general level of physical activity in the population. While there was a fairly rapid change over the transition period between the late 18th and the mid nineteenth centuries, the process of less activity at work has continued up to the present day. This week’s illustration shows the reduction in occupational energy expenditure for men and women between 1960 and 2010.

By 1992 the Allied Dunbar Fitness Survey (1992) estimated that about 80% of men and 90% of women were in occupations which were neither vigorous nor even moderately active.   On a different scale this process has continued. Using a different measure of activity, between 1995 and 2014 the proportion of less active occupations rose from 55% to 67% while the proportion of more active occupations fell from 43 to 33%. “Less active occupations” include managers, professionals, clerks, technicians, sales and service workers. “More active occupations” include agricultural, construction, manufacturing, industry and labouring.

And daily life

As well as machines for replacing manual work we have seen the mechanisation of daily life. From transport to laundry, from carpet cleaning to lawn mowing, machines have taken over much of the daily physical grind of our lives.

Leisure time activity

Since the Industrial Revolution there has been an increase in the number of organisations encouraging exercise for the sake of fitness. Initially, in both Europe and the USA, this was based on gymnastics. Competitive games and other sports followed and became increasingly popular.

In 1896 the Olympic Games were revived. Sports included were athletics, cycling, fencing, swimming, gymnastics, sailing, shooting, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling. More recently there has been a progressive increase in the provision of community exercise facilities with community sports centres in all UK ciities and most toewns. Gymnasia have become a standard facility of hotels and many clubs. At the same time the cult of competitive sports has also grown and the top players and clubs have attracted enormous devoted fan bases and equally enormous financial rewards.

Doing or watching

Paradoxically, despite the growth of leisure-time exercise facilities, the populations of developed nations have become less and less fit and fatter and fatter. We have divided ourselves into those who exercise and those who spectate. The movement for exercise has certainly attracted many people but has failed to entrap the majority. Several population surveys have confirmed this sad fact. As one commentator put it: “Today’s interest in sport is more often vicarious than participatory. We idolize the elite athlete who performs for us, rather than the everyday athlete we could and should become.”

The electronic revolution

The story goes on with the development of those most addictive drivers of inactivity – “screens”. The television has been followed by the computer, the tablet, the X-box and that ultimate promoter of sedentary behaviour, the mobile phone. At present, screens seem to present the greatest threat to the young but young people become middle aged and then old. Will the screen time of our successors mirror that of the current generation of children and adolescents? It makes you shudder doesn’t it?

Being sedentary

The sad outcome of sitting at work and at play is the huge increase in “sedentary behaviour”, ie just sitting about. The more time you spend sitting the greater your risk of the panoply of the degenerative diseases which make up the NCDs – the non-communicable diseases. These include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, various cancers, dementia and all those conditions which ail us in our later years.

A fit and regularly exercising population would have tremendous benefits for the physical, mental, social and financial health of the nation. For more on this, come back next week!



  1. Jane Flint Bridgewater says:

    Historical perspective always helps drive messages home in my view. Although you have emphasised all the everyday ways of maintaining activity levels, I am sure you will be following this up with a further post-lockdown summary of how to mix activities, some group ‘sport’, walking more often rather than driving (to be green too!), walking the dog, getting involved in physically active voluntary work, standing rather than sitting at ‘office’ or watching activities, just doing more in a day once again going to concerts, theatre etc., shopping more often locally – some on foot, other ‘climate-aware’ initiatives (even demos!), meeting friends/family again in a walk/park/activity venue……and so on, sponsored walks/runs for charity etc. Even carrying a harp is exercise…..! Literature on AI/robots continues your theme and will exacerbate the problem – unless programmed to insist on an exercise regimen.

    • Hugh Bethell says:

      Thank you very much Jane.
      As usual you speak excellent good sense. All of these suggestions are very valuable.
      For my part I avoid giving any instructions or even advice about exactly what physical activity/exercise people should take. There is little evidence to support one activity over any other – so I encourage everyone to find something they enjoy doing and then get on with it! Make it regular, preferably 3 or more times weekly for at least 30 minutes and at least moderately vigorous. More is better but if people do not enjoy what they do they will soon give it up.

  2. Iain Ross says:

    I have often wondered how much labour saving habits and devices use by children in their early ages, have plated a part in injuries to British sportsmen and women. Often these are caused during training. Athletes from less advantaged countries can have an advantage by training longer and harder.

    Such as making a bed with sheets and blankets compared with pulling up a duvet is quite a bit of exercise for a small child, ( or an elderly 80 year old).

  3. Numa says:

    Good to be reminded of this from a historical perspective.

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