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Soc Sci Med. 2007 Mar;64(6):1343-54. Epub 2006 Dec 26.

Off the couch and on the move: global public health and the medicalisation of nature.

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Geography Department, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK.


In May 2004 the World Health Organization (WHO) officially launched the 'Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health'. Lying at its heart is the recognition that many of the risk factors associated with non-communicable diseases, particularly poor diet and physical inactivity, have begun to move beyond the confines of the West. It was this apparent shift in the epidemiological boundaries of such diseases, along with fears over the so-called 'double burden' that they presented to some nations, that finally prompted the WHO to develop such a far reaching strategy. This paper adds to the on-going debate surrounding this important issue by drawing on the concepts of medicalisation, governmentality and the spatiality of scientific knowledge to explore one particular element of it: namely, the identification of nature as a setting for the promotion of physical activity. We adopt this perspective because we are concerned to understand the ways in which the knowledge and practice of the 'new' public health travels. As our analysis reveals, in many Western nations the natural environment has emerged as an important 'transactional zone' where the governmental imperative for the production of fit and active bodies coalesces with the individual desire to be healthy. However, while it is apparent that this physical activity discourse increasingly operates throughout the globe, there is less evidence of an equivalent discourse that promotes the health-related benefits of nature. We argue that this is significant because it helps us to recognise that contemporary public health discourse has a distinct geography.

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