There’s compelling evidence that keeping active has very great health benefits, helping to prevent many of today’s common diseases. But how much do you need to do? And does it matter what activity you choose?

A recent study* has provided some interesting evidence. Over a 6-year period, researchers compared 16,000 walkers with 33,000 runners to see what difference physical activity made to their risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and level of blood cholesterol – factors linked with heart disease.

They grouped the walkers and runners according to the average amount of activity they did. To do this, they used a measure (“metabolic equivalent”) that took account of the weight of each person and the calories they burnt. This allowed the amount of activity done by the walkers and the runners to be compared directly. The highest-activity group was doing the equivalent of an hour or so of brisk jogging every day (or a couple of hours of brisk walking), while the lowest-activity group was averaging around an hour of gentle walking a day in total (or the equivalent in jogging). There were two categories in between these, and all four levels were compared with people who did little activity at all.

The results showed that, broadly, the more activity people did, the greater the benefits in terms of high blood pressure, diabetes and blood cholesterol levels.

What was particularly interesting, though, was that the results for walking and running were very similar. A given amount of activity – whether running or a longer period of walking which expended the same energy – seemed to result in similar health benefits.

This study offers encouragement to those unable (or unwilling!) to get into higher levels of exercise. And it backs up all the previous research showing that even some physical activity is certainly more beneficial than none.


*Link to the study abstract:



Sometimes new research really makes you sit up and think – even when it’s too soon to know whether it will turn out to be certain enough for us to change our habits.

Researchers* have recently shown how one of the proteins in red meat – carnitine – is broken down by bacteria normally present in the gut to produce a chemical that’s converted into something that has been shown in animals to damage arteries in the heart, brain and elsewhere in the body.

That chemical is TMAO (which, if you are interested, is short for trimethylamine-N-oxide), and it causes the damage through atherosclerosis**, the process that causes a build-up of material in artery walls and eventually leads to blockages that cause heart attacks. For many years, this process was blamed on saturated fat; but perhaps it’s the red meat that does the harm.

The experiments showed that TMAO was present in the blood of meat eaters but not in that of vegans. Its level rose after a hearty meal of steak.

If their observations are repeated and prove to be correct, this could explain why some meats, for example chicken, are less hazardous than others. It could even lead eventually to recommendations to change our eating habits. Another possibility might be that a course of antibiotics could eliminate some of the gut bacteria responsible for production of TMAO, making eating red meat less hazardous for those who like it.

For now, it is too soon for this interesting research to form the basis of recommendations. More work involving greater numbers of people needs to be done. But it suggests a need for a search for other sources of carnitine in our diet, and it raises an interesting observation: perhaps, even in this era of antibiotics, bacteria may still be a cause of major human diseases.


*Link to the study abstract:

Link to a story in the New York Times:

**More on atherosclerosis and heart disease:


Prof Brian Kirby, Co-author of How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life


Almost everyone likes sugar. Many people like it a lot – a fact that hasn’t escaped food manufacturers.

No longer is sugar simply something to be added at table or used in cakes, biscuits and jams. It has become ubiquitous: you now find it in all sorts of unexpected places – sauces and salad dressings, cured meats, breakfast cereals, curries and ready meals. And, of course, large quantities are added to many fizzy drinks.

There is currently a debate about how much sugar people consume in the industrialised nations. The sugar industry would like us to think it is modest; but – based on the amount of raw and refined sugar produced per year, supported by surveys of populations – it seems that over the past 45 years there has been at least a threefold increase in sugar consumption. In recent years, the increase has been even faster at about 4 to 5 percent per year.

Bangladesh appears to be the country with the lowest sugar consumption at 8 kg per person per year and Israel the highest with an astonishing 66 kg per person per year. Given that this is an average figure, some Israelis must be consuming considerably more – virtually the equivalent of their entire body weight in sugar!

With rising levels of obesity in industrialised and emerging nations alike, and an alarming increase in type 2 diabetes around the world, the question arises of whether these alarming health trends have anything to do with our bodies becoming swamped by sugar.

Recent studies have been examining this. In one*, data from 175 countries showed that levels of diabetes increased with increased availability of sugar, even after taking into account body weight and physical activity levels. The researchers therefore concluded that there was a probable relationship between diabetes levels and sugar consumption, but stressed that their methodology could not prove it. (Reaching secure conclusions about cause and effect requires vast long-term studies.)

In an unrelated study**, the American Heart Association has estimated that sugar-sweetened drinks are responsible worldwide for around 180,000 deaths per year: 133,000 from diabetes, 44,000 from heart disease and 6,000 from cancer. The researchers expressed concern; but again commentators have cautioned about drawing premature conclusions about cause and effect.

Evidence is certainly mounting that sugar consumption at today’s levels may be a major contributor to poor health. Indeed, some communities in the United States are already considering ways of reducing sales of sugary drinks through taxation or banning large portion sizes. Perhaps we should be doing the same on this side of the Atlantic.

Certainly, though, we could each do with a hard look at the stunning amount of sugar we may be consuming. Cutting down will do us no harm, and may prove to be great for our health.


*Link to the diabetes and sugar study:

**Multimedia resources, including taped interviews with an AHA expert offering perspective on the science, are available on the right column of this link



Today, Sunday 7 April, is World Health Day, and this year’s theme – chosen by the World Health Organisation – is raised blood pressure. The WHO has issued a brief on this subject, which is readable and well worth a look*.

More than a billion people worldwide have raised blood pressure (or “hypertension”). Over the past 25 years, numbers have been steadily increasing all around the world in wealthy and developing countries alike.

In Britain up to one in five men have it – and most don’t know, as there are no symptoms until a complication arises, which is why it is often referred to as the “silent killer”. Many of the complications are serious, often causing long-term disability and, eventually, death. Arteries bear the brunt of raised blood pressure and, over time, the heart, brain, limbs and kidneys can become damaged, and this can lead to heart attacks, stroke and kidney failure, as well as other diseases.

While raised blood pressure runs in some families, no single gene for it has been discovered. Indeed, genetic make-up is unlikely to explain the extraordinary numbers of people with this condition or its increase in so many different countries.

Researchers have instead made a compelling case that these increases are related to the amount of salt we consume, a reduction in physical activity, the increased drinking of alcohol and the stress arising from industrialisation. In addition, smoking is known to make it worse. Arteries become stiffer with ageing – which contributes to raised blood pressure – and so countries with older populations and those where diabetes is becoming more prevalent are seeing an increasing problem. Within individual countries, communities with social deprivation face the greatest problem.

The World Health Organisation has calculated that raised blood pressure accounts for 20 per cent of health expenditure on diseases of the heart and blood vessels. It has a high impact on a country’s health system, and for individuals and their families the cost of being unable to work due to the aftermath of untreated high blood pressure can be devastating.

The WHO is planning recommendations for action by its member states. Any strategy needs to be affordable, sustainable and effective. In many countries, including our own, it will mean promoting life-style changes. The two measures that can make the greatest contribution are increasing physical activity levels and reducing salt consumption. The long-standing WHO recommendation on salt is that we should each consume less than 5 g per day. In many countries, salt intake is 9 to 12 g per day, and even in the UK most of us consume well above the target level.

Achieving the recommendation will require considerable cooperation from the manufactured food industry. Many companies are already working to reduce the salt content in their products, but this would be accelerated if we as consumers put pressure on them by cutting down or avoiding salt-rich foods. It’s worth, in particular, checking the salt in your bread, processed meat, snacks and condiments.

There’s more we can do as individuals. Physical activity helps reduce the risk of getting high blood pressure, as well as helping to control it if you already have the condition. If you haven’t had your blood pressure measured recently, it’s worth getting it checked by your GP, pharmacist or other health professional. This is simple, quick and painless. If it turns out you have raised blood pressure, catching it early means it can be controlled before it does your body any great harm. For a few people, it may even be a sign of a specific cause for their high blood pressure, such as kidney disease, that needs treating.

In the UK we have the means to do something both as individuals and as a country; let’s follow the WHO’s lead.

Happy World Health Day.

* A global brief on hypertension: silent killer, global public health crisis:


Prof Brian Kirby, co-author of “How to Live to 110: your comprehensive guide to a healthy life” (which includes a chapter that explains high blood pressure and what you can do to avoid it or keep it under control).

© 2012 How to Live to 110 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha