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…