Exercise: the appliance of science


I think most of us believe we should exercise, but I often wonder if people really understand the health benefits of daily exercise have actually been scientifically proven? How else can one explain that 31% of the global population do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity guidelines? Because despite a sedentary lifestyle being linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer, time spent sitting on our backsides has increased over the last decade. Yet it was through an examination of two sets of identical workers – one sitting most of the day, one standing – that proved exercise is the ticket to better health and provided guidance as to the minimum amount of exercise we should be aiming for daily.

Jeremy N. Morris

A British epidemiologist, Jerry Morris, made one of the most significant discoveries in post Second World War health almost seventy years ago – the link between lack of exercise and ill-health, specifically heart disease. And having amassed the data that proved exercise is good for you, he took the lesson to heart, swimming, pedalling his exercise bike, or walking for at least half an hour a day up until illness intervened just a few weeks before his death in 2009 at 99 ½.

The man who invented physical activity epidemiology

His 1949 research on London bus drivers and conductors showed that, though both jobs were filled by men with similar social backgrounds and status, there was a clear discrepancy in the heart-attack rate. Dr Morris surmised that the reason could be found on the stairs of those double-decker buses, where conductors famously shouted ‘Tickets, please!’ as they ran up and down between decks. Tracing the heart-attack rates of hundreds of drivers and conductors he established that the drivers sat for 90 percent of their shifts, while the conductors climbed about 600 stairs each working day. Dr Morris’s data, finally published in 1953 when he was truly convinced of the findings, indicated that the conductors had fewer than half the heart attacks of their sedentary colleagues.

In a follow-up study, he found that a lower incidence of heart attack among people doing physical work was not, for the most part, related to other factors, like body type. Transport for London provided him with the waist sizes of the trousers it supplied to its workers. The data indicated that the conductors’ waistbands were smaller, but that their protection against heart attack could not be explained by their relative leanness, as they had a lower risk of heart attack whether they were slim, average size or large.

To further back up his findings he also studied postal workers, comparing those who delivered the mail by foot or bicycle with those serving at the post office. Again, he found the active had a far lower risk of heart attack. In the 1960s he carried out an eight-year study of the physical activity of 18,000 men in sedentary civil service jobs. The data showed that those who engaged in regular aerobic exercise — fast walking, cycling, swimming or other sports — reduced their risk of heart attack by half. Meanwhile his studies also helped promote the concept that those who had had a heart attack should exercise, reducing their risk of another heart attack.

The case for daily exercise keeps strengthing
  • A 2016 study associated higher levels of leisure time physical activity with lower risks of 13 out of 26 types of cancer. Most importantly, the benefits “are broadly generalizable to different populations, including overweight or obese individuals, or those with a history of smoking. These findings support promoting physical activity as a key component of population-wide cancer prevention and control efforts.”
  • According to Florida Atlantic University regular physical activity is the closest we have to a “magic bullet” to combat the worldwide obesity epidemic and cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the number 1 killer worldwide and a main contributor to death in developing countries
  • Even 30 minutes of exercise per week has the potential to significantly reduce a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer. A 2016 study showed women not engaging in physical activity were 2 ½ times more likely to develop the disease

Overall a higher level of physical activity is associated with 7% lower risk of total cancer. Yet not only are the benefits of exercise lost by inactivity, according to Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, spending more of our spare time sitting has been linked to a higher risk of total cancer in women, particularly regarding breast, ovarian and multiple myeloma.

Learn the Jerry Morris lesson

We may mean to move more, but never quite get around to it; of course, many of us feel too time short, ironically probably ensuring we shorten the total time we have. Perhaps we have let ourselves go, when it can be especially daunting to get moving again if we are carrying extra weight. The bigger we become the less able we are to move, so in this case examining our diet is probably a good idea too: too much processed food contributes to weight gain, while its empty calories make it virtually impossible to exercise away. The Just Routine App can help – differentiating between the foods that can benefit our health versus those that can harm it.

Just get started

The key is to begin, gently if necessary, but make moving into a new habit. Jerry Morris took the lessons of his own research to heart and lived to a ripe old age on the back of his science.  So, do yourself a favour: to get started lay off just one portion of processed food this week and go for a brisk walk.

For the more adventurous, hit the gym – and after your aerobic exercise lift a few weights too – the health benefits from resistance training are numerous for all ages, including prevention or limitation of sarcopenia, improved muscle mass, strength and decreased risk of osteoporosis.

Take a ticket to a healthier future

It was fortunate Dr Morris carried out his research when he did, as London buses no longer have conductors selling and collecting tickets, just drivers! So, let’s not squander our good fortune to have the discoveries from his unique research: start exercising to accrue the health benefits for blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, energy, mood, sleep and even the quality and quantity of your sex life – and especially maximising the time to enjoy them all.

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