TEASER: The Miracle Pill with Peter Walker final web transcript
Doug Gordon: Hello, I’m Doug Gordon. In this special episode for Patreon supporters, I talk with journalist Peter Walker about his new book, The Miracle Pill: Why a Sedentary World is Getting It All Wrong. What follows is a short preview of the interview. If you want to access the full thing, just go on over to Thewaroncars.org click “Support Us,” and become a Patreon supporter today. Starting at just $2 a month, you can hear this episode, you can hear our other bonus content. Plus, we will send you stickers and, you know, who doesn’t love stickers? Thanks so much, everybody.
Doug: One of the things I found so interesting about the book is how recent so much of the research on the dangers of inactivity and the benefits of more active lifestyles happens to be. I mean, we’re talking about a lot of research that begins in sort of the post–World War era. And you start the book early on with the research of a man named Jerry Morris. I found this story fascinating. I wonder if you could introduce us to Jerry.
Peter Walker: Jerry Morris is a man who basically deserves a book on his own, not just a chapter in mine. He was this kind of radical epidemiologist, if you can call a person that. The kind of key context to it, which is something that I didn’t properly discover until writing this book, was that whilst kind of doctors over the ages have often thought, “Well, being active must be good for you,” it was never actually proved until he did this pioneering piece of research in 1953.
Peter Walker: And in fact, there was this kind of strange period in the UK certainly, in the kind of Victorian to postwar period where there was a genuine worry that doctors thought that exerting yourself too much was bad for your heart and might cause you to die young. That was a kind of reasonably accepted piece of medical orthodoxy, even in the 1930s and ’40s. And Jerry Morris was this quite extraordinary person. He was the son of Jewish refugees who fled what is now Belarus, and they came to settle in Glasgow. And he grew up in incredible poverty. His poverty was enough such that he was left with lifelong traces of rickets, you know, the kind of bone-bending disease by lack of vitamin D.
Peter Walker: He grew up to be this doctor who had this incredible interest in the way that people’s environments shapes their health and the way that they live. And after service in World War II, he was basically asked by the government to look into why heart disease rates in the UK were going up so much. And the government genuinely didn’t know. There was just one theory it could be to do with all the kind of tarmac being added onto roads as part of postwar rebuilding efforts. And he started to study the work patterns and the health outcomes of London transport workers. So people who were on the underground and buses and things like that. And he eventually found out that the people who were the conductors on the double-decker London buses, the people who kind of dashed up and down the stairs collecting the tickets at the time, had half the rates of heart disease than the bus drivers. And they basically couldn’t believe that activity could be the reason because it was such a kind of strange thing to think.
Doug: So this was the thing that I thought was so mind-blowing about this research because, of course, we look on it with 2021 eyes and we think, “Well, the conductor who’s going up and down the stairs and walking the length of the bus on their shift is going to have better health outcomes, lower heart rates than the driver who is sitting all day.” But that is not—they didn’t actually ascribe the differences in health outcomes to activity at first. They thought that the drivers were experiencing a different kind of stress than the conductors, and they thought that had something to do with it.
Peter Walker: That was the initial theory. And then they talked to drivers and conductors and actually found out that the conductors probably had the more stressful job. And it is amazing that Morris basically realized that activity had to be the answer. But he was so cautious. He kind of waited for two or three years more and gathered more and more evidence. He gathered evidence from officials who worked in government, some in physical jobs, some not. And, you know, he said afterwards when the study came out in 1953, he was amazed at how much response there was, some of it quite negative, because it kind of went against this postwar orthodoxy that having a desk job was a thing that was good to have, and it wasn’t really very, very welcomed. But luckily for him, the evidence just kept coming in. But it is completely amazing that everyone who exercised for health before then was basically just guessing.