Friday 29th January 2021
The Spokesmen Cycling Podcast
EPISODE 266: Move More With The Miracle Pill Author Peter Walker
SPONSOR: Jenson USA
HOST: Carlton Reid
GUEST: Peter Walker
TOPICS: A one-hour long conversation with Guardian political journalist Peter Walker talking about his new book, “The Miracle Pill.”
Carlton Reid 0:14
Welcome to Episode 266 of the Spokesmen cycling podcast. This show was published on Friday 29th of January 2021.
David Bernstein 0:24
The Spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast is brought to you by Jenson USA, where you’ll always find a great selection of products at amazing prices with unparalleled customer service. For more information, just go to Jensonusa.com/thespokesmen. Hey everybody, it’s David from the Fredcast cycling podcast at www.Fredcast.com. I’m one of the hosts and producers of the Spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast. For shownotes links and all sorts of other information please visit our website at www.the-spokesmen.com. And now, here are the spokesmen.
Carlton Reid 1:08
Are you sitting comfortably? Bad, that’s bad. Get up pace around a bit. Maybe listen to this episode on a static trainer, treadmill or just standing up. I’m Carlton Reid. And on today’s show. I’m talking with Guardian political journalist Peter Walker, author of a landmark new book urging us to move more. The Miracle Pill came out last week, and it’s a wake up call for individuals and politicians alike. Now, Peter has got a great mic, but he was sitting a wee bit too close to it for the first half of this episode. So there are a tiny number of plopping plosives. Sorry about that. But we did fix it during the ad break. Now, I began our hour long conversation by pointing out Peter has a rather apt name.
Carlton Reid 2:02
My guest today has written a book called The Miracle Pill, which says that a certain body metric was devised by the pleasingly named Professor Lean. So Peter Walker, what should we make about your apt surname?
Peter Walker 2:22
Exactly. Or in my last book was a it was a it was a cycling books that didn’t really match. This isn’t a book about walking, but there’s more walking in it. So I’m gradually getting there.
Carlton Reid 2:31
Well, it’s it’s just there’s loads of walking in there because it’s it’s everyday active. Movement, not not just transport, but movement, maybe even fidgeting is good. So I’m fidgeting right now. I’m like, I’m like moving around. And with my shoulders. I’m going to click my, I’m just fidgeting. That’s good.
Peter Walker 2:48
Yes, it is good. I mean, whenever I do podcasts for for work, I always get told not to, you know, because in case he kind of jogs that kind of microphone or stuff like that, but I will start to move my legs up and down a little tiny bit. I mean, I’ve done a couple of other PR things for the book was actually kind of been upright on my, on my feet, for them, but I don’t think the audio setup would quite work for that.
Carlton Reid 3:08
Absolutely. I mean, I’ll let you into a secret here. It’s not that much of a secret, actually, because I put it on Twitter. But I when I was I got 90 pages through your book. And then I want Oh, kind of straighten my back, you know, improve my posture. That’s, that’s, that’s at least one thing. And then I thought, Well, I’m not going to walk around the house doing this, I can’t on a bike. So I actually because you sent me a PDF. So I took the PDF on my phone, took it downstairs, put it into the gap went into the garage, and actually rode a static bike for for 45 minutes while reading your book. And then when I came up back into my office and and read the rest of it on my big screen, I then actually stood up fantastic for quite a bit of extra money. So you’re this can be done. You can read books, you can do housework, you can do all the different things you can you need to do and you can you don’t have to do everything sitting down do you?
Peter Walker 4:06
There’s an audiobook too, there’s even audiobooks, you can listen to it whilst you walk or whatever
Carlton Reid 4:12
Who speaks that?
Peter Walker 4:13
Peter Walker 4:15
I was cheap. And I could I could do it.
Carlton Reid 4:18
So your book, walker, it’s not just about walking. It’s absolutely I mean, it’s not even hidden. It’s absolutely aboveboard. And it’s not a book about cycling. But there’s tonnes of cycling in everyday cycling. So you’re right, and I’m gonna quote you here. So I’ve been going through I’ve been yellow lining a lot of a lot of stuff here. So “imagine if you were a medical researcher and you discovered a drug, which would improve people’s health outcomes on the scale of cycle commuting. Well, a Nobel Prize winner more or less guaranteed.” So there’s a tonne of cycling in the book and you have really laying on thick to people. Do you think it’ll work? Do you think people who are not you know me, and you and
Carlton Reid 5:00
The people who are listening to this podcast Do you think they’ll get onto bikes because they’re they’re thinking, Peter speaks a lot of sense.
Peter Walker 5:06
I mean, the whole risk with a book like this is that in the short term, at least, it speaks to people who are already kind of in on this kind of thing. So I imagine a reasonable proportion of readers would be people who are active, I mean, hopefully, it’ll teach them things that they didn’t know, for example, about sitting downtime, which I wasn’t completely up to speed with, before reading the book, but I guess the thing to point out is, it’s not a book, which is meant to kind of tell you what to do. I mean, it’s a book that says, even if you do a little tiny bit more of movement in your life, then the benefits are really, really great. But it’s also making the point that a lot of it is about the kind of world in which we live in, which is not very, very easy to do this kind of stuff. So for example, you know, in normal non COVID times, the bulk of my kind of daily exertion is cycling to and from work, it’s only about three miles each way. But that’s about 40 minutes of like, moderate to vigorous exertion every single day, which is, you know, which is a good chunk.
Peter Walker 6:02
But that’s because I’m happy to kind of be out on even relatively quiet backroads with, you know, two tonne metal boxes going past me at 30 miles an hour, lots of other people would quite sensibly think, well, that’s just crazy. And so for millions of people that kind of opportunity to get daily activities kind of closed off. So it’s, it is about, you know, ultimately, whether or not you’re active is finally up to you. But I don’t want anyone to feel guilt, because there’s so many factors at play. And for lots of people, it’s just made extraordinarily difficult.
Carlton Reid 6:32
So you mentioned there that you’re, you’re happy with, with trucks and
Carlton Reid 6:40
what you’re used to it, sorry, you’re used to a good point. So you’re used to it, and part of the you’ve been used to it is because of your one of your previous careers. So tell us the trajectory. And this is a part that I didn’t know about, but tell us a trajectory for a 21 year old University administrator, then becoming London bike courier through to becoming we have actually mentioned what your
Carlton Reid 7:06
political journalist based in, in Westminster based in the Houses of Parliament, for The Guardian. So what happened? How did those three careers mesh?
Peter Walker 7:18
Well, I described the first bit in the book, that I kind of use myself as an example of how easy it is to kind of fall into this inactive life that, you know, like pretty much every kid I was quite active, I ran around and played football, I was passionate about football, even though I clearly wasn’t particularly good at it. I had asthma as a kid who was actually quite bad. But it didn’t stop me kind of dashing around the place. But again, as I explained in the book, as I got into my teenage years, I kind of lost touch with movement, I didn’t recycle, I didn’t own a bike for a reasonable number of years. And, and when I was at university, I kind of lost faith in my body to kind of do things like that. And I did this incredibly stable, but incredibly boring Graduate University administrator job, once I left university with no real idea what I wanted to do.
Peter Walker 8:05
And I suddenly gave it up, I was about 22, at the time to become a psycho career. And, you know, again, as explained in the book, it’s not quite clear why I did it. But one of the reasons seemed to be almost this unspoken idea of kind of challenging my, you know, physique and my body thinking, Well, you know, you’re young, if you want to pay the rent, you have to cycle as it turned out about 50 or 60 miles a day, every day to actually pay it.
Peter Walker 8:30
And I knew nothing about cycling at the time, I’ve not owned a bike for probably four or five years. And you know, I’d had a childhood one for my teenage years, which I had not taken with me when I when I left home.
Peter Walker 8:42
And so initially kicked myself out because this was, you know, the period when mountain bikes were very much kind of rage, I bought this very cheap and incredibly weighty mountain bike, which is kind of about the weight of a moped.
Peter Walker 8:54
and rotate around London, initially at quite a slow speed, but when you’re 22, you can adapt enormously quickly. So I soon became you know, really quite fit and it kind of transformed my life. It is this extreme example of, you know, kind of mega dosing the miracle pill from going from nothing to doing, you know, 300 miles a week. But effect on not just my kind of physical staples mentality was a completely transformative one, you know, very literally changed my life. And, obviously, you know, I don’t cycle nearly as much as that now. But I still kind of kept that feeling with me if this kind of joy of what it means to be kind of human by using your body in this very basic way. And, and in terms of being a journalist, well, this isn’t something I go into in the book, and I
Peter Walker 9:44
was out of the country for about three years. I lived in Australia for a bit in Sydney for some of it I did some more cycle querying. And basically when you’ve queried they’re going back to London, it’s a bit rubbish, you know, compared to like cycling over the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a brilliant blue sky day.
Peter Walker 10:00
Compared to cycling down Bishopsgate, in the rain, it’s not quite the same.
Peter Walker 10:05
But I eventually got back to I mean, I was really, really into bikes then. So my return from Australia to the UK was mainly done by bike, I wouldn’t say I cycled the entire way, because me and my girlfriend, the time missed out some chunks we did about seven or 8000 miles.
Peter Walker 10:22
And I arrived back in the UK, aged about 2627, not knowing what I wanted what I wanted to do for a job. So I got work experience on local newspapers, and then did a postgraduate newspaper journalism course. And I was relatively old for doing I mean, most of the people doing the course, had come straight from you know, there are 2122, they’ve done an undergraduate course. And so I didn’t become a journalist. I was like, nearly 30. And then how did you get to the guardian? That was quite complicated. I mean, yes, I actually was quite late that when I went for the interview for the post grad course that I eventually did, one of the tutors said to me in a very kind of nice way, he said, Well, we’ve had people your age, you’ve kind of changed careers become journalists, we’ve never had anyone your age has actually had a career before now. And
Peter Walker 11:11
so I joined I took this particular course, because I had very, very strong links with the Press Association, who are now officially called PA Media, who were the UK national news agency, because the standard thing when you become a journalist to do a couple of years on local papers, but because I was older, and I wanted to stay in London, or move back to London, rather, I didn’t really want to do that. So the Press Association, eventually, after much badgering took me on and gave me a job. I was with them for three years. And then I worked for an Agence France Pressress, who are another with a big kind of three global news wise. I work for them in Hong Kong, in Beijing, briefly in Paris and back in London.
Peter Walker 11:55
And then I went freelance and did shifts at The Guardian website, as it was at the time was completely separate from the paper. And I was lucky enough to be there at the time when they needed people. So I got taken on. But that’s about over 10 years ago now.
Carlton Reid 12:08
And then politics, how did you get into the politics? But were you politics straightaway?
Peter Walker 12:13
No, no, no, I did kind of national international news, all sorts of stuff like that the politics happened about four years ago, there was a revamp of the political team, there’s a new political editor and deputy political editor team and I just got shifted over from the newsroom to work. I mean, I’ve always been interested in the political side. It was weirdly never my complete passion to do it. But it’s, you know, obviously a fascinating job to to do and the Guardian political team are incredibly lovely and really nice. I do miss not working, you know,
Peter Walker 12:45
side by side with them every day. We do kind of chat via WhatsApp and Zoom. That’s not quite the same.
Carlton Reid 12:50
So you do talk to politicians in your book, you kind of you know,
Carlton Reid 12:57
probably talking to them about something completely different. And then you’ve you’ve shoehorned in something about this. So there’s some fascinating interviews in the book with politicians. But But you call inactivity, a “normalised catastrophe,” and that “we live in a world redesigned to discourage movement” yet nevertheless, politicians refused to react meaningfully, you know, somehow fearing the nanny state. And so one of the interviews in your book, yeah, that one of the politicians absolutely comes out with the phrase nanny state, yet the reaction to COVID-19 has shown that even libertarian Tories — not all of them, obviously — but some can all of a sudden, at be in favour of state, you know, very, very statist stuff, state intervention in health. So, will it always require acting at state level? Do you think to bring movement back?
Peter Walker 13:54
I think it probably will. I mean, if we look at active travel, then you can, you know, have examples of where individual mayors or councils will do some good things. But for it to happen on a kind of Danish or Dutch level, you need national politicians to be committed to it for 20, 30, 40 years, you know, and that needs that kind of mindset. But it is a completely fascinating thing, because I was, you know, writing a book about a public health issue, which happened to coincide with the biggest public health crisis for, you know, maybe 100 years. And,
Peter Walker 14:28
you know, as you say, it’s completely completely fascinating thing that, you know, in the past, whenever I talked to civil servants or MPs, about this kind of thing, you know, lots of them knew about the subject and they’d go, yes, yes, this is really bad. And, you know, we’re trying to do something about it, but nothing really ever got done. And it remains to be seen, you know, how much COVID is going to change things because, you know, as you say, on a kind of cultural political level is blowing the doors wide open. You know, you can’t really complain about this kind of intervention is nanny state when you’re just building a few bike lanes, when you’re
Peter Walker 14:59
in effect you’ve literally shot the bulk of the country down for the entire year. And it’s not directly comparable, because
Peter Walker 15:07
I mean, you know, we’ve had about 100,000 COVID deaths in the UK now, there are about 100,000 estimated deaths from conditions linked to inactivity in the UK for you. However, you know, the Coronavirus death is with significant mitigation, it would have been a lot more if we just, you know, let it rip.
Peter Walker 15:24
But, you know, the inactivity death toll is every single year. But the difference is, I guess, is inactivity is not something that can be transmitted to other people. And also, it’s a much less kind of dramatic thing, it’s kind of a bit more like, I don’t know, car crashes, that when people died, no terrorism or car crashes, it’s obvious. Whereas, you know, if you get a 20, something who gets an office job, and then spends all their evenings watching box sets and doesn’t want me know, a couple of 1000 steps a day, then they might not feel the consequences of that inactivity for, you know, 20, 30, 40 years. And it won’t be a direct thing. It’ll be through things like, you know, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, potentially types of cancer.
Peter Walker 16:11
So it’s not quite so clear. In fact, it’s not nearly so clear, hmm.
Carlton Reid 16:15
You wrote your book, as you said, at a time when COVID was was absolutely in the news, and also went central government in the UK with Tories were being bullish at the central government Tories are being bullish about active travel and even splashing quite a bit of cash. And, and in your book, you thought this might be a positive sign of things to come. But you also gave a caveat. And you said that another possible future was one where people won’t jump on bikes because they’ll feel safest when driving and and I’m gonna quote you here. spooked other people will be spooked by gridlock. Cities could remove bike lanes and express platitudes about electric cars. Now it’s that second future that’s now looking more likely, isn’t it, especially as local government Tories, belittle and squash the suppose inverted commas war against motorists launched by national Tories. So what’s going on there between those as a political journalist and as somebody interested in active travel between those two impetuses in the Tory party?
Peter Walker 17:22
It’s a really interesting thing. And again, it’s this kind of clash between the national and the local level. And there’s all sorts of layers to it, because Boris Johnson is very much on board he believes in the cycling stuff, you know, as lots of listeners will know, when he was London mayor, he put in, you know, a handful of really quite good bike lanes against the opposition have lots of other kinds of local Tories whether MPs, councillors etc, etc. And, and he’s quite keen, he also had his kind of personal brush with fate when he got COVID very, very badly. And he kind of came out of it convinced that his weight was you know, one of the issues and and weight is an incredibly complicated thing when it comes to inactivity, because you have to do a vast amount of activity to maintain weight loss. But you know, there is a kind of counter argument that even if your BMI is a bit higher than what the doctors recommend, if you are active, your health outcomes get better anyway even if you don’t lose the weight. But Boris Johnson launch what was called this war against obesity, nothing really much has happened to I mean, there’s been some quite for the conservatives quite adventurous plans on things like buying buy one get one free office in supermarkets on junk foods, and not allowing chocolate bars and crispy sold by tills and things like that. And
Peter Walker 18:41
you have this issue that, you know, I think in the kind of spring lockdown of last year, a lot of people were basically fine with these, you know, temporary bike links being built, because there were virtually no motor traffic on the road. But even though we’re officially another lockdown, a lot of motor traffic has come back. And you have had all these examples of councils taking out bike lanes, which which were put into into place and, you know, coming into really quite severe battles with Number 10. And, you know, you had to have Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, kind of playing it both ways. I mean, a few months ago, he put out a kind of public letter to all councils, these are more about low traffic neighbourhoods, these things where, you know, we try and discourage car use by making short car trips that bit less easy. He
Peter Walker 19:33
kind of gave a stop to the kind of anti low traffic neighbourhood people by saying, you know, they have to be trialled properly you have to listen to locals. But he also kind of quite interesting, he said, but you can’t just you know, you have to make sure you find out what locals really think. You can’t just kind of pull out a low traffic neighbourhood remotely because you have a handful of people who were like shouting, and that’s quite interesting and it’s it’s hard to know where it’s going to go. I mean, one of the issues is that Boris Johnson has got a lot
Peter Walker 20:00
on his plate, and much as he might potentially be interested in this kind of stuff, and I generally don’t know how much he is now, then, you know, his officials and civil servants will put 10 other briefing papers on top of those, you know, on his desk first.
Peter Walker 20:16
And my sense of Grant Shapps is that Grant Shapps, you know, talks to talks and does and does what Number 10, you know, says he’s a very kind of loyal minister from that point of view. But I think he’s a kind of electric car type. He is someone who likes kind of high tech stuff, he’s a man for kind of big projects, he, you know, he’s kind of very much into things like HS2. And building bike lanes is a little bit boring. So I think unless he’s kind of kept in check by Downing Street, if that’s what they want to do, then you will have this kind of slippage.
Carlton Reid 20:50
So inactivity isn’t just bad — I’ll stretch my back here, I’m gonna, I’m gonna stand up, no doubt in a minute and talk to you — so it’s not just bad for individuals, it’s bad for everybody, because of the pressure on the NHS and on social care. So tell us about I’ve heard of this before, but it’s it was cute to see it in your book. Anyway, tell us about the Barnet Graph of Doom.
Peter Walker 21:12
The Barnet Graph of Doom, yes, the most frightening PowerPoint presentation you will ever see in your life. And this is connected to Adult Social Care, which is mainly older people where councils
Peter Walker 21:24
need to provide care for older people who can’t look after themselves, where they’re not, you know, they don’t have like relatives to care for them, or they’re not in a kind of private home or anything like that.
Peter Walker 21:35
And basically, some councils bigger councils have a statutory duty to provide
Peter Walker 21:41
care for both children, which is a smaller percentage of the budget, but to older adults. And that takes up a massive, massive amount of lots of council’s budgets to the point that they can’t really afford much more. I remember this was a few years ago, when there were local council elections, speaking to the leader of
Peter Walker 21:59
one reasonably large Council and him saying to me that I quoted a figure in a book by he can’t quite remember what the percentage are. But he said in something like since last council elections, like, you know, three or four years earlier, the proportion of the council spend going on Social Care had gone up from something like 25 to 50%, or 25, to 40%. And the Barnet Graph of Doom was done by the then head of finance at Barnet Council in North London. And it’s a kind of a simple extrapolation, it had all these kind of
Peter Walker 22:33
rising blocks, which is part of the chart, which show the projections for spending on Adult Social Care. So I think it’s actually on all social care, but mainly Adult Social Care, you know, for 15,20 years into the into the future. And it also had a line plotted against those, which was the kind of declining total of what the council’s budget was. And at some point in the 2020s, they they would meet, which would basically mean that apart from Adult Social Care, there’d be no money for anything, not for parks, not for libraries, not for all the other things that counsellors do. And, you know, the author of this of this a guy called Andrew travers, who’s now moved, cancelled, admits it’s a kind of oversimplified model, but it’s intended to, you know, show what the strain is. And the connection to inactivity is that,
Peter Walker 23:20
you know, it’s a kind of good problem to have in a country like Britain, medical advances mean that people aren’t really dying young in general from these inactivity related
Peter Walker 23:31
ailments, like diabetes, type 2, high blood pressure, some cancers. And, you know, they can ask me live quite long, but they might spend 10, or even 20, 30 years with a whole series of kind of interlinked medical conditions, which, you know, require drugs, which cost a lot, and also, you know, other medical interventions, which cost, you know, an awful lot, and as a pressure on the NHS, but for social care, it means that the healthy life expectancy, you know, as it as it’s kind of cool, is, is going down so people are living longer and longer, but the gap between their lifespan and how long they can look after themselves is getting bigger and bigger. And that costs, you know, so much to the extent that, you know, if you speak to people about this, they’ll say that inactivity and obesity to a certain extent, but the two are very much linked. If an activity isn’t tackled, then at some point, both the NHS and Adult Social Care as we know, it will not necessarily be, you know, viable even.
Peter Walker 24:33
There is also some, you know, much more kind of uplifting stuff in the book!
Carlton Reid 24:37
Yes, there are, and we’ll get onto that, in fact, we’ll get onto that after the break. So part of that we’ll be talking about Slovenia and Finland, so countries that are actually
Carlton Reid 24:47
making a difference and how they got people to move more. But at first, let’s cut to that commercial break. So over to you, David.
David Bernstein 24:56
Hey, Carlton, thanks so much and it’s always my pleasure to talk about our
Unknown Speaker 25:00
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Carlton Reid 26:22
Thanks, David. And we are back with Guardian journalist and Miracle — there’s a there’s a an article there isn’t it says that The Miracle Pill author, Peter Walker, so if you don’t ask me to talk before the break, what exactly did Slovenia which is a surprise and Finland do to get their citizens over many, many years moving more?
Peter Walker 26:48
Well, the Finns have got a very kind of strong preventative public health, ethos. And, and a lot of it is aimed at kids as well as getting kids you know, kind of cycling or walking to and from school, they do some quite innovative things with that one of the people I talked to was an someone who who helps to run this programme called finish schools on the move. And one of the things that they did was they fitted a whole bunch of kids brought fitted gave them these kind of inexpensive video cameras so they could video their walks or cycles into school. And then they could, you know, point out, you know, where we felt dangerous, where they didn’t like, doing it. So the local councils could be told. And it’s also about movement in schools too. So they do all these kind of things like, I know, for younger kids in math lessons, if they’re going to count, they can count by doing a squat, or they can jump up and down or they can sit on a board rather than a chair.
Peter Walker 27:48
And they have this kind of commitment to getting kids as active as they can. And be you know, they’ve been doing this for an awfully long time, they have this kind of law, which mandates a certain amount of facilities connected to sport. And there is again, the status of book I can’t remember. But it’s something like one sports facility for every couple of 1000 people.
Peter Walker 28:10
And you know, Finland is a place where the taxes are quite high. And they invest a lot of stuff in that, you know, the Finnish education system is already well known as being quite good. And to an extent, this is part of it. And the Slovenians were more interesting, so I didn’t know much about you know, what they do. But um, there is this report card, you know, as its as its Terminus, kind of ongoing research project into which countries in the world are better at kind of movement in kids. And England gets something like a C, where the very bad scores of active travel, partly kind of help with the fact that there’s a reasonable to sport and English schools, but that’s about as good as many countries get, you know, lots of them are kind of Ds and E’s I think Scotland gets a D. But Slovenia, I think got an A-minus,
Peter Walker 29:00
which was completely amazing. And
Peter Walker 29:03
it turns out that Slovenia claims with some credence to be the only country in the world where childhood obesity levels are actually falling. And, to an extent, this kind of goes against the, you know, everyday movement ethos of the book is is quite sports based. But you know, there is an argument that with kids, you know, it’s slightly different because sports for kids is just kind of fun and play anyway, it’s not like this kind of, you know, grim jog around the park that adults will, you know, you know, sometimes do and, and they have this, what you have kind of two completely could be a fascinating thing, one of which is this commitment to
Peter Walker 29:43
equip schools. It’s basically all the sports equipment they could possibly need. So, I can’t remember exactly what it is, but it’s something like every school has an indoor sports facility and an outdoor one. And they have a commitment to X number of hours of PE every week, and also a commitment every day.
Peter Walker 30:00
People get the chance to go on, you know, reasonably regular daily kind of sports days off. And you’ll have these like summer camps or old like military bases, where the kids can do any sport they want, they can do kind of, you know, mountaineering, hiking, tennis, all that kind of stuff.
Peter Walker 30:17
But they also have this kind of monitoring programme, which has been going on for about 3040 years, where every school kid in the country, and I think in every year group does this kind of battery of tests. It’s like a run over a certain distance and arm hanging, there’s about 20 tests. And because they’ve got so much data on it, it’s all this kind of centrally accessible database, you can get kids who compare themselves against their parents. And it was really, really quite tricky, but it is saying that some parents, you know, think, oh, my goodness, I wasn’t particularly sporty, but my kids much worse than I was, you know, I maybe you need to do more.
Peter Walker 30:55
But again, it’s, you know, if the Finnish model is this kind of slightly Scandinavian social democratic model, this Slovenian one actually does have this slightly communistic feeling. And it did, you know, begin under the communist
Peter Walker 31:10
era, but they kept it kept going this kind of central planning. But, you know, they’ve made a commitment to and it seems to be working really well. And you mentioned, you know, sporting facilities.
Carlton Reid 31:20
And, of course, famously, a lot of our schools got rid of their fields. Yes.
Peter Walker 31:25
Well, exactly. That’s it. And, and you have this issue, which is, again, something I mentioned a lot in the book, that
Peter Walker 31:34
British governments and British type governments tend to frame inactivity as a kind of, factor of personal responsibility or personal willpower.
Peter Walker 31:45
You know, and obviously, there’s an element to it, you know, as I said before, if you want to be actively active is ultimately down to you. But, you know, it’s much much bigger than that if you do sell off all the sports fields, it not only stops kids at school, being able to you know, play sports, but it’s much more difficult for kids that weekends or out of school otherwise just to you know, sneak on and have a game of football or run around or things like that. And and you know, that’s where we get back to this whole thing of if you want fundamental change, you have to start thinking about
Peter Walker 32:18
you know, central government stuff but again, this is stuff that doesn’t only happen or bring results over years it takes decades.
Carlton Reid 32:27
You talk in your book about movement trackers, you placed on on Amish not on you. Because there you do talk about the ones that you do on yourself the Sens one and stuff. But these are the trackers placed on Amish people yes, and how they do a tonne of inadvertent healthy exercise each day.
Carlton Reid 32:46
But if we kind of like look at this country, if we’re looking at America, if we’re looking at most places, probably
Carlton Reid 32:52
people don’t really want to use a mangle instead of a tumble dryer, or walk or cycle somewhere close when it’s easy to jump in a car. And that’s even when there’s a great bike lane that that put in and we know that because cities are veined, very often veined, especially in the UK with great footways. But there’s still too few walking on them. So you’re selling us a future of wearing
Carlton Reid 33:21
hair shirts, Peter
Peter Walker 33:22
I’m absolutely not doing that. And I’m, again, at great pains to point out that, you know, one of the reasons which is undeniably true that there’s less everyday activity in the world is devices which save a lot of incredibly tedious labour. I mean, for women, mainly, you know, no one’s saying we should go back to this era of manual rug beating and clothes washing and things like that. But we have to be creative and to give opportunities for active travel, you know where we can, and that whole Amish mission or not quite sure what the best way is to say their name. That whole study is interesting because
Peter Walker 34:01
activity research is obviously interested in what kind of previous populations what kind of levels of movement they’d have done, but you know, they can’t travel back in time.
Peter Walker 34:10
But the Amish live in this kind of recognise be 19th century way with no mechanisation and horse and carts and stuff. So they managed to persuade a group of, I think the Canadian Amish to wear these activity trackers. And the interesting thing is that whilst you know anyone who’s watched you know, films and TV series about them know that the Amish aren’t allowed to own the kind of modern
Peter Walker 34:33
high tech things. They were allowed to use them. So you know, they so they had these activity trackers kind of clipped onto their trousers and
Peter Walker 34:42
slightly difficult the men are not allowed to wear belts and the amount of walking that they do, you know, in this kind of everyday life, I think the most one person didn’t one day was like 40,000 steps which about 20 miles. This is kind of a picture of what life was like.
Peter Walker 35:00
In the past, where exercise was the kind of redundant concept you had, you know, everyday activity, and then you had rest. And, you know, and no one’s saying, unless you know, people want to that you should go back to that. But at the same time, there has to be this recognition that, you know, this gradual creep of everything roofing in activity from our world, he knew from the point of view that, you know, maybe 10 years ago, people would have this very routine thing of walk into the cinema or walk into a restaurant. Now you can get a takeaway summoned by an app and stream of film. And all these things are convenient, and in many ways, good, but there are consequences. You know, and the consequences are that people’s overall activity levels are dropping and dropping, and we somehow need to be creative and not to make it this kind of penance. You know, that’s what the whole exercise thing is about. A lot of people join gyms because they feel guilt, you know, feel like, you know, shame almost. And that’s why, you know, a lot of people don’t go to gyms there is, I talked to someone who, who is a kind of analyst in the fitness industry. And he was saying to me that the business model of lots of gyms is basically these people called
Peter Walker 36:08
sleepers, who are people who get a gym membership, but simply never go. And that’s like one in 10, they kind of reckon.
Peter Walker 36:15
And the solutions are not that clear. And it depends, you know, on each person, but you have to just find a way to,
Peter Walker 36:23
you know, make it more convenient to to move and I’m lucky enough to be able to, you know, ride a bike, because that gets me where I wanted to go, you know, quicker than any other means. But for other people, it’s gonna be much more tricky.
Carlton Reid 36:34
So ebikes are another Yes, labour saving device, yet you heartily — pun intended — recommend them in your book. So why?
Peter Walker 36:45
it’s because the studies, you know, and the studies are relatively new, because ebikes haven’t been around, particularly mass use for all that long. Their studies indicate that people do get a lot of physical activity benefit from E bikes, I mean, this is all based on the kind of legal UK EU definition of an E bike, which is, you know, pedal assisted bicycle, we have to pedal to get it going, you’re limited to 50 miles an hour, etc, etc, etc. And, you know, the thing is, I’ve written e bikes, and they are brilliant. And it is possible to do minimal amounts of work just to have you know, the kind of power gauge up to maximum and not go that quickly. And, but the studies show that whilst mile for mile people expend less energy and do less exertion on a bike, they actually tend to, you know, cycle much greater distances, you know, because they’re more likely to say cycling to work five days a week. And, and so the overall amounts of
Peter Walker 37:44
activity gained for people on ebikes was not that dissimilar to those people riding normal bikes. And, you know, obviously, they just opened up this whole chapter, because lots of people who wouldn’t necessarily want to ride normal bike, they might have a hilly commute or a long one might do it with an E bike. So you know, they are genuinely really good things.
Carlton Reid 38:04
So I’ve got an Apple Watch. And when I go for the Saturday croissant, and it’s, you know, I deliberately make it a bit further away, because the nice, particularly nice croissant riding,
David Bernstein 38:16
Yeah, totally. But it’s actually building it, making it deliberately a long way to go and to go and get it. So when I go on an electric bike, and when I go on a standard bike, that, that what my Apple Watch tells me afterwards, like the exertion levels, it isn’t that much different. So it takes about I get basically half an hour of hard exercise, whether I do it on electric, interesting. On a standard bike, however, I think I am being a bit unusual in that I’ll hammer on an electric bike. And then if I hammer, I’m probably not actually using the motor that much anyway,
Carlton Reid 38:54
except among a very steep hills, because if you as you said before, if you go over that that speed threshold, the mode is meant to be cutting out anyway.
David Bernstein 39:04
But you can conversely to that you can if you want to just go very slowly and and let it do more for you. So it does depend on how much you actually want to put into it. You don’t have to be a slothful person to get an E bike you can still be a mega fit person and still
Carlton Reid 39:25
get health benefits out of an E bike.
Peter Walker 39:28
Yes, you can. And you know conversely, you’ll get someone like you who kind of you know rights as hard as you can, you will get people who won’t get you know, a huge amount of exertion from an E bike but the stats seem to show that studies seem to show that overall people do tend to get some you know, exertion from it. And you know, it could be for sorts of reasons it could be people deliberately fitness having a power setting low it could just be you know riding a bike is a lot of fun and 50 miles an hour on the kind of little
Peter Walker 40:00
long flat road might actually not actually feel that fast after a while, so people do keep on pedalling after the motors cut and might not even realise it. And it can be all sorts of reasons. Or it could just be the fact that, you know, the mini exertions, of having to pedal the bike, even for a bit just to start off from traffic lights, or up hills or things like that. If you’re more regularly say, you know, doing a seven mile ride, rather than doing nothing or doing a three mile ride, then it all, you know, adds up.
Carlton Reid 40:29
I mean, that’s one of the key things I’ve taken away from your book, basically, that the Tesco
Carlton Reid 40:34
motto, you know, Every Little Helps, you know, literally fidgeting is good. You know, moving a little bit is just, it’s, it’s good. So electric bikes, you know, even visiting your leg spinning? Well, that is good in itself.
Peter Walker 40:53
With the fidgeting, it’s a slightly
Peter Walker 40:58
kind of nice point. But the fidgeting stuff is that’s part of the chapter on on obesity and inactivity. And there’s a study which showed that people who fidget can often eat more without gaining as much weight. Now, if you talk to an activity, scientists fidgeting itself might not get you into the zone of moderate physical activity, which is officially seen as a trigger for what you need to get the real kind of health boosts. And moderate can be like a brisk walk or kind of gentle gardening, housework, etc, etc. If you’re sat down, you’re probably not getting to that level unless you’re really really juggling your legs round. But the converse to that is that, you know, the kind of ethos always used to be has to be moderate has to be vigorous. And if you’re doing moderate, it has to be at least 150 minutes a week, you know, ideally broken up into 530 minute chunks. But
Peter Walker 41:56
when you talk to experts, they basically say that the reason that those kind of guidelines were put in wasn’t because smaller amounts of of exertion weren’t good for us to see is very difficult to measure them, you know, before you had these sophisticated electronic trackers, but now they’re finding the you know, the advisor change, they say, even 10 minutes at a time will do you some good. And, you know, it doesn’t, it’s still the advice is to go for moderates. So there is some evidence if you’re walking really slowly, it doesn’t do you a vast amount of good. But you know, moderate is also a kind of relative thing. There was a study on older American women, which found that those who did you know, about four and a half 1000 steps a day have basically pottering around not walking particularly fast, had half the kind of early death risk of those who did about 2000. So, you know, it depends really, but you know, the kind of health warning stroke caveat to add is that just sitting down and fidgeting might mean you gain less weight, but it might not necessarily, you know, improve other odds.
Carlton Reid 43:03
In the book, you you said you you borrowed a Garmin and said you because the the 50 pound limit of what journalists can accept as gifts that you can possibly buy it did. Did you in the end didn’t actually say whether you did or did you actually get the watch?
Peter Walker 43:19
I still have it is not on my wrist? No, because if I sit down for too long, it beeps. So before this podcast I took it off is now sitting at the other side of the room. But what actually is totally to do this is a kind of audio reminder, I need to do I need to get in touch with wiggle who lent stroke gave it to me and basically say, you know, is there a charity to whom I could, you know, give an appropriate amount for the watch. Because my plan was to give it to the guardians Christmas raffle, they have this annual thing where kind of gifts which people can’t keep put into a kind of metaphorical pot and garden staff, buy raffle tickets and then kind of potentially get one of the prizes and raise a lot of money for whatever charity and but there obviously wasn’t one this year. And also I kind of got used to wearing it. So
Peter Walker 44:07
I never thought about wearing any kind of activity watch which I find it quite useful.
Carlton Reid 44:12
I’m not a watch wear at all. I’ve never been a watch wearer
David Bernstein 44:17
normally, but now I’m an religious watch wearer and that’s because of the Apple Watch. So I mean quite a powerful, incredibly useful things for for somebody like a cyclist. If you kind of crash it will alert somebody it will it will last it will I mean I fell off a wall the other day and not cycling I hasten to add just walking, and I could feel my risk going dude, dude, dude, dude, you’ve got to tell us that you’re okay. Otherwise we’re calling the police. And so just that thing and then you kind of you’ve got if you’ve got a heart condition, you know, the latest ones I haven’t got the latest one, but the latest one will tell you.
Carlton Reid 44:56
You know, something’s wrong with your heart and you’ve got it sorted out. It tells you
David Bernstein 45:00
oxygen saturations which is useful for Coronavirus. If you don’t, then you know, you need to know your oxygen saturations. All good stuff. But it’s just the fact that it, it tells me how much movement I’m doing. And I’ve always been dead fit also done stuff anyway. But this will now prompt me not not prompt me, as in, it’ll beep and tell me just I’m looking at it. And I’m thinking, see, I’ve got to do a bit more here. And I will look at the amount of steps and we’ll look at how much I’ve done. And I will then do more. So just by getting the watch, I’ve done more, but we didn’t mention your book. And I don’t know how much you know about this is
David Bernstein 45:40
I got the Apple Watch via as a plug here by Vitality. So Vitality is a form of life insurance where otherwise, yes, yes, like money off, if you can prove to your insurer that you’re dead fit. So it’s in their interests for you to get fit. So there’s all sorts of incredibly good deals on getting a watch. And then if you get a certain amount of points per day of activity, you get, you get points, they build up, for instance, I get my, my Amazon Prime paid for by my activity levels, I get free coffees, if I don’t collect them at the moment. But if when i when i was going into coffee shops, I would get free coffee.
David Bernstein 46:29
These are not huge things. in the scheme of things you have 78 pounds for Amazon Prime couple of quid for coffee, etc. But it just it’s just these little nudge things is just oh, well, if I do one minute more of exercise, I get a coffee tomorrow. It’s that kind of stuff. So you know, I know you were saying before, we weren’t saying before, it’s a state thing, not an individual thing. Yet, the Vitality method, and the nudge method might mean it, it is an individual thing in that you’ve got to be motivated to do these things. And this can get you to do stuff. So there is an awful lot of individual
Carlton Reid 47:09
individuality things in in in, in getting people moving more, yes?
Peter Walker 47:16
Yes, there there is. I mean, again, the kind of one caveat, I’d say is that you, you know, you said yourself even before getting the watch, you were very fit, you’ve always done a lot, you know, this kind of stuff, it’s not just you need to do more. And perhaps the same is true for me, you know, my fitness is basically since became a biker, it’s been above average. And certainly, up until lockdown, I was always like cycling around everywhere, which took care of most things.
Peter Walker 47:41
And getting this Garmin, which it hasn’t got as many features as yours. But it does give me this kind of quite accurate daily
Peter Walker 47:47
step count, which is very useful. There’s times, you know, when I’m not going into an office where I can look up at 3pm, I’ve taken like two or 3000 steps. So that makes me think oh, my goodness, I should go for a walk or bike ride later.
Peter Walker 48:00
Peter Walker 48:01
I’m not sure if just giving something like that to someone who’s completely inactive. And saying make sure you get over 5000 steps a day
Peter Walker 48:11
is going to do it. I mean, the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge about the health impacts. Most people, you know, if asked will know that being active is good for you. A lot of people will have heard certainly of 10,000 steps a day, you know, quite a lot will have heard of 150 minutes a week. But it’s just for a lot of people. It’s not very easy. And you know, I think it is interesting, this idea of this kind of commercial pressure. So insurance companies saying you know, you’ll get money off if you do that. It’s the same way, I guess at some car insurance, if cheaper if people agree to have a GPS tracker, you know, and they can drive in a safe way.
Peter Walker 48:49
Peter Walker 48:50
I think for the majority of people, that’s not necessarily going to do it, you know, I could be proved wrong. And it could be that, you know, the situation gets so grave that that, you know, it costs literally, I don’t know, a quarter of as much to get life insurance if you do have one of those things. But, but you’re still faced with a problem that, you know, if you have someone who lives nowhere near a bike lane, they’ve not been active for years. And they get told Well, you know, you can save 200 quid a year if you’re active. How do they do it? You know, it’s a bit more complicated.
Carlton Reid 49:23
That’s my that’s my hat that noise you might be hearing is a dog crunching on her bone. And the reason I mentioned that is because I walk more now because I can have of having a dog. So in your book, you mentioned gardening, you mentioned walking you mentioned cycling, nowhere in the book do you mention it’s really good to get a dog? So do you do not have a dog?
Peter Walker 49:52
I don’t I mean it fits in under walking. And one of the interesting things is though again, it
Peter Walker 50:00
Or what kind of work you do. There is a study which inactivity expert in the US told me about which I’ve never been able to track down since I need to email her and find out what the what the link is to it. But she told me about a study which said that I can remember where in the us it was done. But it discovered that people who own dogs were actually marginally fatter than people who didn’t on average, because they thought they were getting exercise. But what they were doing, were walking to the park, standing there with their friends while they ran around and then walking back. So so you know, again, it’s a bit complicated, I’m sure you marched very brisk pace with your with your dog. But some people don’t, you know, and obviously, all things being equal having a dog is can be better for you than not, he does. You know, mean, you do need to actually leave you to go outside and do stuff.
Peter Walker 50:50
But you know, yes, there’s all sorts of reasons. There’s all sorts of ways you can do that. If you can’t have a dog or don’t like dogs, you know, you can just try and walk to your shops, you know, this. There’s this one quote, which I kind of use near the end of the book, which is by a guy called Professor Steven Blair, who is now retired us activity expert. And I was asking everybody, you know, I talked to you, what activity do you do? How do you kind of straight try and stay active? And he had said something like, you know, my slightly simple minded answer is to find the activity that you enjoy doing, and just keep on doing it. And that’s the kind of thing is going to be different for every person.
Carlton Reid 51:26
So could I got an eight and a half, like you, my wife, and my 23 year old daughter both got 10s.
Peter Walker 51:35
So explain, can I can I just point out, factually, I don’t want to correct you on the book. But I’m also claiming a 10. It was the it was the
Peter Walker 51:45
the doctor who invented the test, you’ve got an eight and a half, I’m just attends to will probably not for much longer.
Peter Walker 51:53
But I make the point that my legs are so inflexible, I don’t know how much longer I can do it.
David Bernstein 51:59
Well, so explain the sit stand test. And and I will put it in the show links, I’ll put the video that you talked about in the book. So I mean, basically, it’s, it’s, it’s on some videos, not just connected to this, this particular doctor, but in other ones, you know, people quite introduced a quite in a scary way, and that this will predict when you die.
Peter Walker 52:20
Well, a lot of people know about variants of like the chair test, which is this kind of test of how well you’re going to age where you know, you have to
Peter Walker 52:30
cross your arms crossed your shoulders and sit down and stand up on a chair a certain number of times, and then you have to consult charts, so how good you are for your age, or things like that. And that’s quite complicated. It depends on things like the height of the chair compared to the person etc.
Peter Walker 52:44
But this Brazilian doctor came up with his kind of all purpose tests, which he calls a Sit-Rise test. And basically, you have to find a kind of clear patch about two metres square, where kind of close you can move around it. And the instruction is something like, sit down completely on the floor, and then stand up using as little assistance as possible. And if you’re like a ballet dancer, you basically cross your legs and, you know, sit down like a bird on your on your bum. And then immediately kind of elegantly get back up again. And if you can do both those you score a 10. But you lose points for like wobbling on the way down, or you lose points for using a hand push yourself up.
Peter Walker 53:28
And there’s other kinds of more nuanced rules that if, when you are on a floor, you’re not allowed to, to get up, you’re not allowed to use the kind of edges of your feet, it’s the kind of lever has to be the flat soles of your feet to push yourself up. And
Peter Walker 53:42
this is intended to measure all sorts of things. So in a kind of direct way images, your flexibility, it measures the strength of your legs or some inches measures the power of your legs, you know, he power to kind of do that initial push. But it kind of indirectly measures other things like you know, your balance your weight compared to strength and things like that. And
Peter Walker 54:06
this doctor had done it just as a test and had recorded the scores of people and their ages and medical records. But some researchers kind of cross referenced his results with basically the death records of his patients who’ve gone on to a diet and there was this astonishingly close correlation between a low score and and how likely people were to die quite soon. If you had a score, I think it was less than three, then your chances of dying were roughly the same as if you had certain types of cancer. Whereas more or less whatever your age if you could do a kind of certainly a 10 or eight 9, 10 then your chances were really pretty good. And it’s worth watching the video just to see what you’re meant to do but it’s actually completely addictive. And I
Carlton Reid 54:52
did it I shouldn’t I saw the video and and then got eight and a half. My wife didn’t see the video and just went Yeah, did it up again.
Carlton Reid 55:00
Like, how did you know that that’s so
Carlton Reid 55:03
was my daughter who was actually a, she’s a fitness trainer, amongst many other things that she does. She used to, she didn’t watch the video either. And she’s completely different technique, but I think she was using a bit more of edge of foot. So I’m gonna mark her down,
Peter Walker 55:18
I’m gonna give her give her a chance to actually sleep give her a chance to do with over the feet flat. I mean, the the thing which I mentioned in the book, it’s kind of interesting for everybody how they do it. So I’m still just about able to do it on, you know, maybe I might be docked to nine and a half. But I like to think I can do a attend. But a lot of that is just like many people who ride bikes, I’ve got relatively powerful legs, you know, for my size and weight. But I’m also not very flexible in my legs. So I basically need to stretch a lot more or in the coming years. I’m gonna, you know, start dropping down the scale.
Carlton Reid 55:54
Yeah, this is what my daughter is talking about her hip flexors, you know that hip flexor is dreadful in cyclists.
Peter Walker 56:00
Definitely. Well address in lots of people, basically, you sit down a bit too long. You know, there is this theory that the kind of epidemic of back pain around lots of countries like Britain is because people’s hip flexors have just shortened over the years because they sit down too much. and that in turn affects the way you know that you stand in effects your your your your back, which is yet another reason to, you know, sit less and walk more.
Carlton Reid 56:22
So Peter, where can people get your book? And where can they find you on social media apart from the cause, following your your Westminster
Carlton Reid 56:36
tales on the Guardian,
Peter Walker 56:38
They can get the book from any good bookshop, whether it’s Amazon or the bookshop.org, which
Peter Walker 56:46
groups together lots of local book shops. It’s published by Simon and Schuster, and it was out last week. And in terms of following me, I mean, yes, I’ve got a profile page at The Guardian, which is very easy to find. I’m mainly social media wise on Twitter, which is @PeterWalker99. It’s such a common name, I had to add the numbers at the end.
Carlton Reid 57:06
Well, Peter, thank you ever so much for taking the time today.
Peter Walker 57:10
It’s a great pleasure. Thank you for so many interesting questions.
Carlton Reid 57:14
Thanks to Peter Walker, author of The miracle pill. This has been episode 266 of the Spokesmen cycling podcast. Links can be found on the-spokesmen.com. The next show will be a one a half hour chat with mountain bike legend Gary Fisher, and the show after that will be an hour with World Champion Masters cyclist Sylvan Adams, the billionaire who is bankrolling the Israel Startup Nation pro cycling team and also pumping cash into transport cycling in Tel Aviv. Both those shows will air in February. Meanwhile, get out there and ride.