In the late 1940s, Jerry Morris, Director of Britain’s Medical Research Counci’s Social Medicine Unit devised one of the first great epidemiological studies to figure out why so many Britons were dying of heart attacks: he looked at bus drivers and their counterparts who, this being the land of double-decker buses, ran up and down the stairs each day collecting tickets. “And there was a striking difference in the heart-attack rate,” Morris tells the Financial Times Simon Kuper. “The drivers of these double-decker buses had substantially more, age for age, than the conductors.”
The key difference between the two groups: the bus drivers led, essentially, sedentary lives; the ticket collectors were constantly moving. As Kuper notes, in a fascinating article, the idea that exercise – or the lack thereof – was intimately associated with disease was so radical, Morris sat on the results until they had been tested by every conceivable means. Then the data from postal workers came in, and the results were the same: those who actually delivered the mail were significantly healthier than those who sat behind counters or worked in an office.
Morris went on to write one of the pioneering works of modern epidemiology, The Uses of Epidemiology (1957); but he also started to live out the conclusions from his study of the data, becoming possibly Britain’s first jogger. Still alive at 99 – and still working – Morris has constantly advocated for physical exercise as a vital change required of humans living, for the first time, in a sedentary culture. As he tells Kuper:
“For the first time in history,” says Morris, “the mass of the population has deliberately got to take exercise. It’s a new phenomenon, which is not appreciated.” For decades he has tried to persuade governments to make exercise easier. He was involved in the pioneering English National Fitness Survey of 1990, which found that half of women aged 55 to 64 could not comfortably walk a mile. These people were in effect disabled. The government ignored the report. Since then, British exercise levels haven’t changed much. His voice becomes high-pitched with outrage: “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.”