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Physical Activity and Health: The Early Years

Monday, January 05, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD
[NOTE: Happy New Year to all our loyal readers! We hope everyone had a restful (yet active) holiday season. My personal thanks to Travis for posting when he could while I was out of reach of a computer – an exercise which was quite therapeutic until I checked my email inbox. Today we officially return from our hiatus and will resume daily posting as per usual.]
Yours truly in London, England (2007)

I’m sure many individuals have recently made resolutions to live a healthier life in the new year – hopefully including a vow to increase physical activity levels. But where did the notion that physical activity is good for health come from?

Although there are many mentions of benefits of physical activity for longevity throughout history, it all really began with some groundbreaking research in the early 1950’s. One prime example of this work is that of Jeremy Morris and colleagues who assessed the health of various workers according to the physicality of their occupation. In their initial study (published in 1953 in Lancet) they looked at the rates of coronary events (angina, heart attack, etc.) between conductors and drivers of London’s famous double-decker buses (as pictured above from my recent London visit). Although the drivers and conductors were exposed to basically the same work environment, the drivers were largely sedentary, meanwhile the conductors walked back and forth through the buses, climbing the stairs to check for tickets.

As clearly depicted in the following graph (taken from a more recent article) the incidence of coronary events in the drivers was almost double that of the conductors, regardless of age. Similar findings followed comparing the health of postmen to government clerks, and that of San Francisco shipyard workers (manual versus administrative jobs), among others. In all, this provided some of the first scientific evidence of the beneficial health effects of physical activity – a notion which has since been considerably expanded upon.

Taken from Paffenbarger et al. 2001

Hopefully this little historical note, along with some of our prior fitness tips (i.e. benefits of a single exercise session, taking the stairs) will aid in motivating some towards realizing their goal to get a bit more active in the new year.


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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