The Miracle Pill

Image - The Miracle Pill

author: Mikel Bringas, 

In previous posts I suggested different books written by scientists, published with an informative style.

This time the author is not a scientist, but a political news journalist from The Guardian, Peter Walker. I believe that this characteristic makes this book unique, since it avoids the closed focus that is usually employed in science texts, with expert knowledge on a specific topic. It offers a broad vision based on a multitude of international interviews, extensive documentary review and even testimonies of personal experiences.

The author's professional contact with politicians creates a special sensitivity towards the need for intervention by public powers in promoting physical activity, if we want our health systems to continue to be sustainable: (“This is very much a question of when, not if”), with a not very hopeful future perspective:

“The academics calculated that on current trends, by 2030 the average American will, over an average week, expend only about 15 per cent more total bodily energy than someone who spent the entire seven days in bed. If that sounds worrying, it should be.”

The book makes an interesting historical review of the industrialization and urbanization process that has led us to a sedentary life, with the promotion of sport as a solution to the problem, which is not valid for all people. It highlights the need to focus on incidental physical activity if we want to create an active society: 

“This is the central point: if you really want physical movement to embed in someone’s life, it has to be in the form of another beloved public health term – ‘incidental activity’. This is, at its simplest, activity which takes place almost as an afterthought, because it forms part of your regular day. It is what happened in the past when people did farm chores, or carried in wood for the fire, or walked to school. This was just life. In contrast, sport and exercise generally happen in discretionary time, which is one of the main reasons they are so unsuited to replacing regular exertion as a population-wide driver of better health.”

“There is deep concern among many public health professionals that the focus on sport rather than more regular movement allows governments to pretend they are tackling inactivity, and ignore the wider problems.”

And in this type of incidental physical activity, I agree with the author on the need to promote  active travel:

“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. A Nobel Prize would be more or less guaranteed, as would a knighthood or damehood.”

Social concern for excessive government intervention in public health issues is something that is repeatedly shown in the text, but the author's comparison with what happened with COVID-19 is appropriate:

“If voters can accept their government effectively locking them in their homes for two months to save lives, perhaps far less intrusive measures to create more everyday activity, for the same reason, are less likely to attract the traditional opposing cry of, ‘Nanny state!’.”

The book wants to make the readers think about their own daily habits, and at the end of each chapter it proposes practical suggestions:

“Next steps: Think about your routine, and how and when you are physical. Is it just through exercise – and if so, can it be hard to find the time? Then think about how you might be able to incorporate any sort of exertion into everyday life – everything from climbing one flight of stairs to parking 200 metres further away than normal – instead.”

In the section about children, as we have shown in previous posts, the work carried out in Finland and Slovenia stands out, comparing two different societies:

"If Finland’s approach is a typically Nordic, social democrat – type, Slovenia’s program for young people and schools feels almost communist - and, in fact, did originate in Yugoslav times."

In the case of Slovenia, Gregor Starc, who participated in this session that we organized, is the person who explains their situation.

In short, it is a book that is capable of completing the complex puzzle of physical activity. I recommend reading it to professionals in this area, and even to those who need a boost to increase their daily physical activity, since reading it is sure to have an effect.

Lastly, considering the current moment, shouldn't the title be “The Miracle Vaccine”?