Devi Sridhar’s recommendation for people of all ages to exercise is absolutely on the ball (I’m an expert in public health. Which is why, aged 38, I’ve qualified as a personal trainer, 1 January). For years, up to my late 50s, I trained in and taught aikido. Now I have eight acres of field, wood and garden to manage, so every summer I cut, split and stack a couple of tons of logs for our winter fires.
But when my long-term cancer, under remission for 20 years, started to play up again, my medication pushed my blood pressure way up. I was prescribed pills to bring it back down again, but they only do so marginally. So, as I still lead a pretty active life, I needed to find a way to keep mobile while dealing with that potentially life-threatening condition.
I decided to set up a little home gym to improve flexibility and mobility. It’s very basic, with an exercise bike and electric treadmill, together with a blood pressure monitor. I started off gently, doing half an hour of exercise three times a week, and taking short breaks when my pulse rate doubled. And within a month, those little rests became ever less necessary.
Crucially, I kept a record of my blood pressure results. The results have been startling. After each exercise session my high blood pressure has dropped far more than any of my pills ever achieved. Now, after 10 minutes’ rest at the end of a session, my blood pressure monitor tells me that my results are normal.
As for the log-cutting, the results are even better. As our Nordic cousins like to say: “He who cuts logs warms himself twice.”
Oh yes, and I almost forgot to mention, I’m 85 years old.
As a public health analyst, one might have expected Devi Sridhar to take a holistic view. Of course diet is crucial, not to only to weight and fitness but health and wellbeing. She will surely be aware of the “social determinants of health” model that shows how health – a complete state of mental and physical wellbeing – is determined by a myriad of factors, from genetic to environmental. Instead, she seems to load the burden once again on individuals.
This is one sure way of sustaining the forces that generate health inequalities that are a blight on the UK and a long-running scandal. Intervention in the determinants, and not just health spending, is largely the responsibility of the government: ensuring healthy food, sure, but also good air quality, education, housing and so on.
No doubt Sridhar will enjoy the free weekend training sessions she plans to start, which Nicola Sturgeon has said she’d like to join. But not far away in Glasgow’s tenements and estates, the failure to address health inequalities bears down on the least powerful. Sridhar might even quiz Sturgeon about it.
Prof Devi Sridhar is right to focus on prevention rather than cure. I wish governments would do the same, but prevention doesn’t show immediately and won’t capture votes. I wholeheartedly agree with Prof Sridhar, but it is not always necessary to join a gym or fitness sessions. Moderate exercise, good nutrition and healthy minds appear to improve health as we age.
I recommend The Lazarus Strategy: How to Age Well and Wisely by Dr Norman Lazarus. Now in my late 60s and having survived cancer twice, I wish I had followed this book’s advice from my 20s.
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire