The man who invented exercise

Talking of exercise, the FT has a fascinating profile of Jerry Morris, “The man who invented exercise”.

Morris is a scientist who spent the late 1940s investigating the post-war epidemic of deaths from heart attacks. He set up a “vast study” looking at heart-attack rates in different occupations, which revealed a striking (and previously unnoticed) link between physical activity and heart attacks:

“The very first results we got were from the London busmen. And there was a striking difference in the heart-attack rate. The drivers of these double-decker buses had substantially more, age for age, than the conductors.

The drivers and conductors were of the same age and social class: the only difference was that the drivers spent all day sitting down, while the conductors ran up and down 500 to 750 steps per day. Subsequent data – comparing heart-attack rates for postmen delivering mail by bike or foot with those working behind post-office counters – confirmed the link between activity levels and deaths by heart attack.

The writer of the profile describes how unexpected this was at the time:

Today, almost everyone understands that physical exercise can help prevent heart disease, as well as cancer, diabetes, depression and much else besides. But on that day in 1949 when Morris looked at the bus data, he was the first person to see the link. He had inadvertently – “mainly luck!” – stumbled on a great truth about health: exercise helps you live longer.

When Morris finally published his research in 1953 – after the years of meticulous checking necessary before proposing so unorthodox a hypothesis – his paper was greeted “with general disbelief”. Gradually, as we know, attitudes changed, so that now we find it hard to imagine a time when people weren’t aware of the health benefits of exercise.

What’s more, the exercise needed to be proper exercise, not just pottering about, as shown in Morris’ study of British civil servants:

Because the civil servants in his study were middle-class British males, 91 per cent were gardeners. “It’s what keeps us sane,” they repeatedly told Morris’s team. Morris had thought gardening would protect them from heart disease. It turned out not to. Only vigorous exercise, such as swimming or playing football, was enough.

Morris – a lifelong socialist who only stopped voting Labour after the 2003 Iraq invasion – has spent much of the subsequent decades trying to encourage more exercise among his friends and society as a whole. He remains frustrated by the limited take-up of exercise by a sedentary population:

The key issue is not individual will, he insists. “It’s got to be a joint effort between the government and yourself.”

He uses his own example: until his mid-90s, he was a habitual swimmer (he stopped in part because he was embarrassed by people rushing over to help him out of the pool). And, “well, swimming means there must be pools”. Governments need to build pools and bike paths, and pedestrianise city centres.

As Morris wrote in a 1994 paper, “physical activity could be today’s ‘best buy’ in public health for the west.” However, he was ignored, as was a 1990 survey which revealed that half of women aged 55 to 64 could not comfortably walk half a mile. Morris is outraged by the apathy of governments and society towards this issue:

“Just imagine, what historians in the future are going to say about the way we’ve allowed this epidemic of childhood obesity. ‘Disgrace’ is a sort of mild word.

Certainly there can be few better advertisements for his discovery than Morris himself. Having been brought up by his father to exercise regularly, he has remained active into old age – and still turns up to work each day at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at the age of 99

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7 Responses to The man who invented exercise

  1. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    I was just thinking today about how I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been to the gym in ages. So, umm… thanks for that, I guess.

  2. John H says:

    JRH: ironically, literally the next thing I did after hitting “publish” on this post was to phone LA Fitness to ask about cancelling my gym membership. Am riding my bike most days now, and that’s doing me more good than the gym has ever done.

  3. Perhaps I am one of those that find it hard to believe the benefits of exercise have not been generally known for a long time. There might not have been scientific studies linking it to heart disease etc. But it generally has been known to be healthy.
    When I was at seminary there was a guy that was always harping on the men to exercise. At that time I thought this was generally a new push to christen the “body worship” of our culture. But when I got into the parish, I began reading a bunch of pastoral ministries, some dating back to the 19th century, When pastoral theology became a study in its own right. I found it amazing that they all recommended daily exercise. Of course, one also recommended smoking a cigar while visiting the sick in the hospital to ward of getting sick yourself. Ah, the good old days.
    I came to realize though that this is much of the same advice Paul gives about disciplining the body. You can find hints of this knowledge, absent the scientific study, almost everywhere, through out time. It was especially accepted among military cultures.

  4. John H says:

    Bror: agreed that people recognised the benefits of exercise for improving physical ability/endurance. As I understand it, the point is that no-one had realised that exercise might not only help you run faster or fight better, but stop you dropping dead of a heart attack.

    And as the article points out, another difference with ancient times is the fact that so many people today need to make exercise a deliberate choice, rather than exercise being something done for specific purposes in addition to an already highly-active life by modern standards.

  5. John H says:

    Though that leads to an interesting thought: how much have modern Christians (esp. preachers) misinterpreted Paul’s references to “physical training” by importing modern understandings of the benefits of exercise back into the text?

  6. Pingback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e86v4

  7. John H.
    I do believe that many preachers are guilty of importing many modern understandings into Paul’s words about physical training. I for one doubt that Paul saw gym membership, and six pack abs as being essential to the Christian life. Though he definitely considered the body something to be held in submission, and subdued. I think today pastor’s have a tendency to think that the body needs to be worshiped as the “temple of God” or at least the Holy Spirit. In many ways this working out bit can be closely related to Gluttony. The extremes meet. It is body worship in a different from. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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