19/03/2013 07:59 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 06:12 BST

How to Save 36,815 Lives a Year

You would probably be forgiven for not knowing an awful lot about the town of Pahrump, Nevada.

The town is arguably most notable for being the site where Las Vegas casino owner, Ted Binion, chose to bury treasure before dying under suspicious circumstances, and one of the men accused of his murder was subsequently apprehended while digging up the vault. The town also plays a part in the 1996 cult science fiction film Mars Attacks!, as the landing site for Earth's alien invaders. And the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, once bought property nearby. But in terms of international recognition, Pahrump will probably always struggle to etch its name on the minds of many beyond its borders.

However, although it's a grim thought, you can bet that the town would dominate conversations around the world if, during the course of a single year, a chronic lack of physical activity in the town ensured that cancer, diabetes or heart disease took the lives of all 36,000 inhabitants.

In reality, lifestyles in Pahrump are probably no more or less active than in any other town, but if such extensive inactivity led to such a rapid and widespread extinction of life, it would be considered a peacetime tragedy virtually unparalleled in proportion.

Hundreds of thousands of relatives and friends beyond the cities boundaries would be affected, and such an atrocious catastrophe would immediately produce universal demands that government should stop at nothing to prevent it happening again.

Unimaginable as such devastation may seem, merely shift it's setting across the Atlantic and broaden its boundaries to incorporate England, and its scale becomes entirely accurate.

Health officials have long known that a lack of physical activity has contributed to the often-fatal deterioration of the health of individuals across the country. This week, however, Sustrans and the South West Public Health Observatory have for the first time been able to reveal the full extent of the damage done by lack of activity in England: 36,815 deaths each year; slightly more than the entire population of Pahrump.

It is of course quite appropriate that a large amount of government money and effort is currently spent on reducing smoking. The devastating physical consequences of the habit for the individual are reason enough, but add to this the colossal and unnecessary burden cigarettes place on our health services, and the government's decision becomes logical financially as well as ethically.

Surely it is now time for the government to dedicate similar levels of time and resources to combating poor health caused by lack of exercise?

As well as the huge saving to the public purse, we should also consider the colossal benefits to individuals - and their families. If every adult in England was active to a fairly basic minimum standard each week, we could ensure 294,730 fewer people lived with diabetes. We could prevent 12,061 emergency hospital admissions for coronary heart disease, cut the number of cases of breast cancer by 6,735 and incidents of colorectal cancer by 4,719.

Physical inactivity is no longer a hidden killer. Health experts agree that walking and cycling are the easiest ways for people to get the exercise they need, but far too often the environment in which they live does not help them chose exercise over more sedentary lifestyles, particularly because of the prevalence of driving short distances.

We can no longer ignore this problem: both central and local government must now act to ensure people can chose to exercise as part of their normal day far more often and make walking and cycling the safest, easiest and most enjoyable way to travel around their community.

Fortunately for the residents of Pahrump, the 36,000 people killed by lack of physical activity in 2013 will not all be from the same town but, for the thousands of English families who should be finishing this year without experiencing such a tragic loss, the need to help people walk and cycle more often could not be more urgent.