Curious as it might sound now, it was only in 1953 when researchers first proved that staying physically active tended to be better for your health. While plenty of physicians and doctor-sages over the centuries had advocated regular movement as a tonic, even in the immediate postwar era much of medicine still carried an almost Victorian view of exertion as being potentially bad for the heart, not to mention a bit undignified.

The man who changed all this was Dr Jerry Morris, a truly extraordinary and bafflingly little-known figure who has a claim to being one of the UK’s most influential 20th century scientists. Researching why there was a gradual increase in heart attack deaths, Morris studied the records of thousands of London Transport staff, and discovered that bus conductors had about half the rates of heart disease of their bus driver colleagues. After ruling out other factors, for example work stress, Morris eventually concluded the difference had to be the 500 to 750 steps the conductors climbed and descended every shift.

This was a revolutionary idea for the time, so much so that Morris made his breakthrough three years before the eventual paper was published in medical journal The Lancet, as he wanted to gather more and more evidence. In the decades since, more research by scientists, including Morris – who lived to be 99, and more or less never stopped working – has extended the proven benefits of regular movement beyond heart disease to a whole medical textbook-worth of conditions, everything from type 2 diabetes to blood pressure, several cancers, and bones and joint health.

Then, of course, there is the cognitive and psychological side of things. The idea of physical exertion bringing an “endorphin boost” might not actually be true – studies don’t seem able to show a link between people’s reported mood and their endorphin levels – but regular physical activity has been demonstrated both reduce to chances of developing depression and alleviate symptoms of those who have it, with similar effects for anxiety. There is also significant evidence showing exertion improves our sleep.

At the cutting edge of research into this area are studies which show staying physically active can reduce people’s chance of developing dementia or curb its advance, and even increases the size of the part of the brain connected to higher cognitive function. 

You might have noticed that throughout this I’ve avoided using words like “exercise” or “sport”. That’s not because these types of pursuit don’t have the same effect – they do; your body doesn’t care why it works up a sweat. But the difference is that sport is only ever a solution for a minority of people. If you want real, population-wide change, it has to be in the form of helping people integrate movement and exertion into their normal lives.

For all but the last few decades of the 300,000 or so years that homo sapiens has been roaming the planet, this was never an issue. But now, factors ranging from the decline of manual labour to ubiquitous car use for even laughably brief journeys, means almost four in ten UK adults are now so immobile they risk their long-term health. Nearly one in five say they never walk for 20 minutes or longer at a time. In the UK alone, about 100,000 people a year die from ailments connected to inactivity. That’s the same toll as for coronavirus – every year. A normalised pandemic. 

There are two vital things to note. The first is that much of the vanished everyday labour is welcome. No one is advocating for a return to the punishing domestic regime of rug-beating, clothes washing and wood-fetching that dominated the lives of so many people, mainly women. It’s a question of what should replace it. Similarly, in describing the extent of inactive living now, the aim is not to shame people, or to describe a mass outbreak of laziness.

The fact is that we live in a world in which exertion has been almost designed out of life. Just think of the last time you went into an office block or hotel – admittedly, amid Covid this might be a while ago. A set of gleaming lifts would most likely have been on show. But if you wanted to take the stairs, even for one flight? You would probably have had to hunt round the back of the building for a fire door, hope the fire alarm wasn’t triggered, and trudge up a dank, windowless stairwell. 

In non-Covid times, the bulk of my daily exertion involves cycling to and from work. But while I’m used to having two-tonne metal boxes glide past me at 30mph, for millions of other people, this would seem absurd. And so, without safe cycling infrastructure, this element of active living is largely closed off to them. This is the same point again – this is fundamentally the work of governments, not just a question of individual responsibility.

This can all seem a bit gloomy, but the good news is that more or less whatever amount of extra physical activity you can bring into your life, the benefits are virtually instantaneous and almost absurdly significant, especially at lower levels, where the dose-response curve is so steep.
For all the studies warning of poorer life chances if people are inactive, there are plenty more highlighting the health impacts of regular movement. One of the most famous found that people who cycled to and from work were 40% less likely to die over the course of the research than those who did not, even accounting for all other lifestyle and demographic factors.

It’s why I called the book I’ve written on state of physical activity The Miracle Pill. It’s almost a cliché in public health circles, but imagine being able to squeeze that much impact into a medicine.

But when I get on a bike, beyond even the well-proved boost to my physical mental wellbeing, it is a fundamentally connected way to travel. There is a theory that beyond about 20mph, people find it hard to maintain eye contact. On a bike you’re thus in touch with the world. Waiting at traffic lights I can wave at toddlers, smile at dogs, feel the bite, or caress, of the weather on my face. I’m not another anonymous blog behind a toughened glass screen.

Cycling is just my thing. Your best everyday activity could be walking, gardening, playing with kids or grandkids, whatever. It matters not. In being regularly active, you are taking part in one of the most fundamentally, recognisably, universally human things we can do.

Peter Walker is the author The Miracle Pill: Why A Sedentary World Is Getting It All Wrong published by Simon & Schuster

Further reading

Your back needs exercise

Why does physical exercise improve mental health?

Why we swim: the benefits to mind and body

My journey in body awareness

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?