Book reviews: Building Back Better

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 152.

Over the last few decades, physical activity has been consistently designed out of our everyday lives. Alan Ackroyd reads two books that consider the issue – and possible solutions.

Twelve years ago a professor of public health and a lecturer in medical statistics realised that the previous 50 years had seen a momentous increase in over-weight and obesity across the western world and that frighteningly costly consequences were to be visited on individuals and health-care systems for years to come. During lockdown a political journalist watched people struggling to make use of the daily hour of exercise people believed they were allowed, almost mandated, to do and started to look at why, for many, this was so hard. Their findings are remarkably similar.

The Energy Glut, Ian Roberts and Phil Edwards, ZED Books, 2010

The Energy Glut points out that in the previous 50 years motorcar and TV ownership had become almost universal and our homes had filled with labour-saving devices. At that time fossil fuels had, for most people, taken the labour out of living and the activity out of recreation. The Miracle Pill drills down into our current understanding of the human metabolism and the history of our approaches to activity and exercise to conclude that human beings are programmed from our prehistoric past to consume energy-rich foods and conserve that energy against the uncertainties of the future. Cutting down our food intake in line with reduced activity requires self-discipline that most of us cannot sustain for any length of time.

Both books point out that physical activity has been consistently designed out of our everyday lives – to the point where The Miracle Pill quotes the forecast that by 2030 the average American will use only 15% more energy in their daily lives than if they were lying in bed all day. Most people’s lives are dominated by door-to-door car journeys, stairs in office buildings are increasingly hard to find and shopping is increasingly sedentary. And even previously active employment is less taxing – a few years ago the footings for your home extension would be dug by two guys with picks, shovels and wheel-barrows. Today one man on a mini-digger with a flask of sweet tea and a Mars bar will do the job. Meanwhile, even though our average energy intake has recently been falling slightly, our diet includes high levels of the sugars and fats loaded into remotely processed foods to give the semblance of freshness. And just a 10 (kilo)calorie excess of intake over energy expenditure per day adds up to an extra pound on the scales over
a year.

The Energy Glut suggests some practical ways in which activity can be returned to everyday life and energy intake can be moderated. Avoiding shopping by car (with a tendency to over-purchase because so much more can be carried) in favour of regular visits on foot or cycle to local shops for the needs of the next couple of days and limiting habitual car use where possible are parts of the mix.

By cycling for everyday transport rather than driving, most people could exceed their 150 minutes of exercise per week

The Miracle Pill, Peter Walker, Simon & Schuster, 2021

The eponymous Miracle Pill is vigorous activity of any sort (e.g. a brisk walk) for 150 minutes per week, but this is difficult to add into busy days. The writer (his first book was Bike Nation, reviewed in our Summer 2019 issue) points out that we are encouraged to add exercise into our, already pressured, ‘discretionary time’ which raises questions about what we give up to do it – family time, home cleaning and maintenance, social life? He suggests that by cycling for everyday transport rather than driving, most people could exceed their 150 minutes of exercise per week with only a small increase in time taken and huge benefits to mental, physical and social health.

But the conclusion shared in both books is that the increase in body-mass and waist-lines is so widespread that it is not an individual problem to be handled as an individual responsibility (you should move more and you should eat less) but a public health problem to be handled at a societal level. We have designed activity out of the built environment. At the moment, those of us who walk and cycle often feel that we swim against the tide of the dominance of motorised transport. The rest of this issue of this magazine is about how that needs to change. These books are about why it is imperative that it does change – and quickly, because the public health time-bomb of inactivity is ticking ever-more loudly with an explosion of heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes looming over the horizon. And it will take more than mere lockdowns to protect us from that.