Lecture on Advantage Play for the IET
Wednesday 16th September
I gave a lecture to the IET in Surrey on the science and technology of sport. Normally I would be in a lecture theatre, able to kick balls and swing rackets. Circumstances dictate however, that the dining room would have to suffice. Swinging tennis rackets was a little dangerous – pretending to do a long-jump with ancient Greek halteres (jumping weights) was even harder. The 200 or so posed some tricky questions, one of the hardest being, “is there any equipment that protects from injury and improves performance at the same time?” (I suggested sports climbing – 100 years ago the mantra was “don’t fall or you’ll die”; now protective equipment can allow you to try the same route over and over again until you get it right).
Radio 4’s The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili
8th September 2020
I made an appearance on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific with the fantastic Jim Al-Khalili. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a bit like Desert Island Discs but without the music and obviously with a lot more science. If you don’t know either then look them up they’re fun! The premise is that the interviewer asks you about your life and your work over half an hour, a bit like a friendly job interview in front of millions of listeners (or maybe thousands – I’m not sure of the numbers).
Jim has interviewed some amazing people over the years and I feel privileged to be among them – one of my pals said when he heard I would be on: “You’ve made it!” Thanks Jim – it felt for just a half hour like I had.
The considerate highwayman
1st September 2020
“Always be careful and considerate to others”.
This was the opening of the first Highway Code, published 90 years ago, and wasn’t what I’d expected. With a million cars on the road, the number of deaths per year had reached 7,000 per year and something had to be done. The feeling of goodwill was everywhere on that first page.
Counter-intuitively, they then abolished speed limits. Why would you do that if consideration was paramount? According to a debate in the Lords in 1932 the reason was that it was because “the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.” The logic of such an argument is frightening.
In reality, the main problem was that cars tended not to have speedometers and could easily break the law without realising it. Rather than make speedometers mandatory, it was easier to take away the speed limit and let people drive as fast as they wanted. A 30 mph limit for built up areas was finally put in place 5 years later and speedometers became mandatory in 1937. Still, by 1941, road traffic accidents reached a peak of over 9,000 per year, made worse due to wartime blackouts.
Better but not brilliant
How are we doing today? Better but not brilliantly. In 2019, the Department for Transport reported 153,315 casualties. Horrifically, there were 1,748 deaths. About six in ten killed or seriously injured are those in cars or on motorbikes, but at least a third are pedestrians or cyclists. This statistic is really shocking. The causes of accidents are many-fold, but I’m pretty certain that those on foot or on a bike tend not to kill those in cars. This really isn’t good enough.
Let’s create a new normal – together
Ninety years after the first Highway Code, and after 520,000 or so deaths on the roads, we seem to have got the message. Announced in 2018, the UK Government has decided to change the Highway Code. Three things are proposed: (1) a hierarchy of road users with pedestrians and cyclists coming first rather than last; (2) pedestrian priority at crossings and junctions; and (3) guidance on safe passing of cyclists (and horse riders).
The consultation is open and we can all make our views heard until 27th October 2020. One of the things I’d like to see is an emphasis on the legal nature of the Code where the MUST/MUST NOT sections aren’t just guidance but legal requirements, especially when it comes to drivers interacting with pedestrians and cyclists.
Mostly, I’d like to see the 1930 guiding principle return and made mandatory:
“You MUST be careful and considerate to others”.
Roads might be one solution to the end of lockdown; just not in the way you might have expected.
29th April 2020.
Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. This often quoted phrase has been attributed to physicist Niels Bohr, who said he was quoting Danish satirist Storm Petersen who may have borrowed it from Mark Twain. Regardless of its source, the phrase is truer now more than ever. If the consequences of the current global pandemic are unprecedented as many experts say, then we have little evidence at hand that might tell us what to do next as a third of the world’s population come out of lockdown.
My thoughts have been going like this: what do we know, what can we guess at, and what sort of new normal do we want?
What do we know?
Firstly, we know that governments the world over have told us to socially distance, and some like the UK have told us to exercise once per day. The former will continue in some form well into the future as we grapple with containment of the virus; we’ve known the latter is good for us for many years yet have struggled to make governments take it seriously. It seems now they have, understanding that exercise is one miracle cure that can reduce the risk of many diseases and their effects. Secondly, most of us have now experienced what it is like to live in an low traffic neighbourhood for the first time – these have only really existed before in mythical places like Utrecht, Amsterdam and Waltham Forest with their corresponding reductions in air pollution. Sadly this is too late for many; pollution has been linked to at least 3 million deaths per year and a small increase in particulates (1 microgram per meter cubed) appears to correlate with an 8% increase in death rates from covid-19. Lastly, we’ve found our urban centres to be ghost towns with only an occasional etiolated queue of customers stretching out from supermarkets and bakeries onto temporarily coned off streets and pavements. Bars, restaurants, shops and cafés are shut, with owners wondering how they’ll get enough people to pass through at 2 meters per person to make them viable.
What might happen as lockdown eases?
How might people react as the lockdowns ease? A recent poll of 20,000 drivers from the AA suggested that people might work from home more, drive less and cycle more. Surveys on behaviour seem to suggest that while exercise has reduced overall, this is because the travel component of exercise has vanished; Sport England has shown that levels of leisure walking and cycling appear to have remained high and cycling may even have increased as people suddenly find the car-less streets danger free. Importantly, a clear majority say that exercise is good for their physical and mental health. There is a real danger that this might all vanish as the lockdown ends and people return to work. Given that we’ve been told to avoid public transport, it’s possible that people will jump into a car as their only safe and viable option. Pollution will rise again, exercise levels will plummet and our newly formed quiet neighbourhoods will melt away under queues of polluting traffic.
What do we want our new normal to look like?
One thing that has become self-evident is that people and their health and wellbeing are what’s important. This is nice to hear – if not slightly surprising – after a decade of austerity. Another thing is self-evident: social distancing is going to continue for the foreseeable future. This is what will shape our world for the next year or two. But how will we do it in our towns and cities? Most pavements aren’t wide enough to pass with a 2 m spacing, especially if there’s already a queue on it. Where could we possibly get more space? Roads are the obvious solution. If we consider our town roads as useful space, then they will become part of the solution rather than the problem. Frugal innovations such as cones, signs and planters are all that’s needed to change our spaces and can be led by the communities who want change. Some Cities like Edinburgh and Berlin are already designing safe temporary cycle lanes for those who see cycling as a viable option for their commute. Organisations like Sustrans and Living Streets have been thinking about this for a long time and have evidence for the things that work and even my home city of Sheffield wants to follow.
Our roads and streets might be one of the solutions to the end of lockdown, providing safe space to travel to work by foot, bike, wheelchair and buggy replacing the 45% of car journeys in the pre-covid world that were less than a mile (see above). I’m looking forward to the trial closure of streets that mean shops, cafés and bars can use the road space to allow us to socially distance while approaching some sort of normality. This really isn’t a world I would have predicted just a month ago, but it’s probably a new normal I could get used to.
Thursday 2nd April 2020: Sheffield Telegraph feature today
“If you’re already fit and you have to go into hospital, you have a much better chance of coming out of that hospital, in any case, and with any condition.”
Apparently, that’s what I shouted from about five metres during an animated conversation with David Bocking at the top of a hill outside Sheffield. Dave did a great job turning my ranted ramblings into some sort of coherence. My thesis is basically that your immune system can be enhanced by being fit (thank you New Scientist) and this is one of the best things we can do during the pandemic.
The government message is clear: (1) practice social distancing; and (2) do some exercise once per day. When the pandemic has passed and social distancing is no longer needed, the only intervention left is exercise. We shouldn’t forget this.
I’m embarrassed that David attributes world leading research to me: you can rectify this by reading my New Scientist article and seeing who actually did the research.
And please support the excellent Sheffield Telegraph by buying the paper. Just off to get my own copy…
Tuesday 24th March 2020: The Covid-19 lockdown is here in the UK.
It’s the morning after the night before: last night Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown to try to stem the problem that is Covid-19 and I’m shell-shocked. It’s not a polite request any more, it’s an order. The task for the majority of the population now is to stay out of the way and not get sick. This will allow the NHS to find and treat those who catch the virus without worrying about the rest of us.
Although the initial lockdown is only 3 weeks, the evidence from China is that it’s likely we’ll be like this for 3 months (Johnson suggests 12 weeks is needed to beat the pandemic). My worries are relatively trivial in the grander scheme of things: isolation from my work colleagues; inactivity; a sore neck from working on a laptop. But there is one glimmer of hope. As I write this, we are allowed to exercise once per day; we should use the opportunity wisely.
Safe distancing notwithstanding, exercise is one of the best things for you. It improves mental health, cardiovascular function, reduces chronic inflammation and really is a miracle cure.
What’s the best form of exercise during a pandemic? Social distancing and team sports don’t really mix unless you have a big back garden and a large family. Things with wheels such as cycling, skateboarding and roller skating might be fun with so few cars on the road – and would still allow you to keep your distance. But this isn’t for everyone. Running is an obvious choice and something that is easily done on your own.
One often overlooked form of exercise I’d like to suggest is walking. Surprisingly, in a recent New Scientist article I found that a brisk walk of, say, 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) can give the same health benefits as a 5 kilometer run; the main difference is that walking takes more time. If there’s one thing we’ll have in the coming weeks, it’s time.
If you find yourself moping around the house or sitting down for too long, go for a walk. There is almost no upper limit to the amount of walking that is bad for you; it is literally what we were made for. Follow the public health rules and keep your distance but shout hello to those glancing at you nervously from across the street and I bet you get a smile. It might be the best thing you do all day.
Saturday 14th March 2020: New Scientist article on Running vs Walking
My article on running vs walking for the New Scientist made the front cover (quite a coup for a New Scientist nerd like me). If you don’t subscribe to the magazine then you won’t be able to read it all I’m afraid so – spoiler alert – the thesis is this:
If you normalize for energy expenditure, then the health benefits of brisk walking are very similar to those of running, it just takes longer.
Wow, I can’t believe i just summarised a whole 3,000 words into 24 words!
Saturday 5th October 2019: parkrun Health and Wellbing survey released
After a summer of analysis, our Health and Wellbeing survey of parkrun has been released into the wild by parkrun. With most of the hard work done by Drs Alice Bullas and Helen Quirk from Sheffield Hallam University, we analysed over 100,000 surveys from the UK and Ireland, resulting in 60,694 and 4,384 completed surveys for each country. With 47 questions, this created 11 million answers for the UK and just under 1 million answers for Ireland. Just checking the data (over and over and over again) took a lot of hours!
What did we find? There were some obvious things:
- people were motivated to take up parkrun to improve their fitness, their physical health and to feel a sense of achievement
- 91% improved this sense of achievement,
- 89% felt they’d improved their fitness while 85% reported that they’d improved their physical health
- 79% of parkrunners felt they’d improved their happiness from running or walking.
Surprisingly (or maybe not?), 69% felt that their mental health had improved, despite this being way down the list of reasons why they took up parkrun in the first place.
We’ll be posting the full report and writing up papers – probably over the next decade! I’ve leave you with some word art created from the 14,296 comments left by people at the end of the survey. People really care about parkrun.
Thursday 28th May: Book review of Advantage Play
Matin Durrani from Physics World reviewed my book – this is the first review I’ve had so I was a little nervous what it might say. It was balanced, commented that I had too much to say (something people do say about me!) but did summarise in the tweet caption as follows:
What more could I have asked for? Phew!
Thursday 9th May: Interview with Sarah Storey and Chris Boardman
I was lucky enough to interview Dame Sarah Storey and Chris Boardman MBE at the Sheffield City Region’s Transport Conference, instigated by SCR Mayor Dan Jarvis. I had 40 minutes to ask my own questions about Olympic medals, their careers and active travel and then field some from the audience.
My favourite comments:
To Sarah: what do you think of e-bikes?
Sarah: I really don’t think they are allowed at the Olympics
To Chris: are there any career highlights that perhaps you don’t really get to talk about?
Chris: I knew I’d made it when I when to my local chippy and they gave me my chips for free.
They were both really impressive on their thoughts about active travel and their roles in promoting not just cycling but walking: it’s going to be great working with Sarah.
Dan Jarvis’s message? “We need to create a world where the only travel option is not the car.”
Thursday 11th April: Edinburgh Science Festival
Had an exciting day out at the Edinburgh Science Festival presenting Advantage Play. I seemed to have got the graveyard shift which in Festival terms means 5.30 pm when the day’s festival goers have gone for dinner while the evening lot are yet to appear. Ah well, I had a great time interviewing Olympic swimmer Jack Thorpe on stage and we were interviewed earlier in the day on the BBC Radio Scotland show with John Beattie (excellent rugby player in his own right) – see image below.
Things I learnt: don’t present at dinner time; do interview elite athletes on stage, it’s fun; it is possible to do sports science experiments on stage; beards are bad for swimming performance!
Monday 1st April 2019: New Active Travel Commissioner announced!
Dame Sarah Storey was announced today as the new Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region. I gave the opening address which you can find a synopsis of here. The key principles:
- we should focus on short journeys;
- we should encourage people to cycle and walk these distances;
- the world will be a better place if we do.
Simple to say hard to do!
Monday 25th March 2019: Pint of Science!
Down my local to record the first episode of The Pint of Science Podcast – the barmen are actually the presenters Jim and Callam. We talked about the history of sport and technology and the big question: Is it cheating?
Make sure that you sign up!
Saturday 16th March 2019: Science Week
Kids really are great aren’t they? Show them a bike, talk about the science, give them a silly hat to wear and they’re away (a bit like triathletes or academics). A 10 yr old asked me a really sophisticated question about aero-helmet design (“why do some teams chop the points off the back of the helmet?”). It was nice to see as many girls as boys there although I’m not sure of the sex of the toddler who kept on wandering on stage to steal my footballs.
Tuesday 5th March 2019: Parliament (not talking about Brexit for a change!)
Honoured to be invited to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing and the 2019 Spending Review. This is me taking a sneaky selfie at the end with the key protagonists in the background: (from left to right, Lord Gus O’Donnell, Lord Richard Layard, Chris Ruane M.P. and Nancy Hey from What Works Wellbeing). I learnt a lot: that GDP goes up regardless what the money is spent on (drugs, reconstruction from an earthquake) and doesn’t reflect the quality of the spending (drugs, earthquakes). Gus O’Donnell suggested that some would like to replace GDP with measures of Wellbeing. Now wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?
Wednesday 13th February 2019: Medilink Healthcare Business Awards
Had a great time at the Medilink North of England awards dinner last night. I couldn’t resist putting on an aero helmet during my after dinner speech (captions please…) but the topic of the talk was ‘Faster, higher, healthier’. My closing message? Doing 2 x 10 minutes per day of exercise enough to raise your heart rate can reduce your relative risk of death by about 10%. So just do it!
After dinner speech circuit here I come…
Thursday 17th January 2019: Talk Sport
Had a lot of fun on Talk Sport with the excellent Natalie Sawyer to talk about my book and the technology of sport. Also on was Bradley Wiggins and Darren Lewis from the Mirror newspaper. We touched on everything from the ancient Greeks to goal line technology and VAR (Video Assistant Refereeing).
Thursday 6th December: “A healthier, happier planet” Sheffield Telegraph
David Bocking, a photo-journalist from Sheffield, wrote a really nice article on me for the Sheffield Telegraph. I was out of Sheffield at the time it came out and got a lot of stick from people about the number of pictures of me in one article (seven). An edited online version is here, with the paper-original shown below.
Tuesday 13th November: 100 Faces of a Vibrant Economy 2018
Well, who’d have thought it, I’m a Face. Of a vibrant economy that is. Grant Thornton celebrates leadership, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit through its 100 Faces of a Vibrant Economy awards. And I’m happy to say that I’m chosen as one of them.
Thank you Grant Thornton!
Here’s my face.
Friday 2nd November: The Equalizer documentary now on Amazon Prime
Delighted to find that my documentary The Equalizer made by Kensington TV is now on Amazon Prime. It takes 5 modern day Olympians to see whether they can compete with their peers from the past using old technology. The main question is this: which makes the biggest difference, the athlete or the technology?
Thursday 4th October: My book is out!!
My book Advantage Play: Technologies that changed sporting history was officially published today. It’s like having a baby (the easy male part of it, that is): you prepare for the big day without realising that there’s a whole load of work afterwards too – feeding it, helping it grow, showing it off to people and generally getting on everyone’s nerves because you can’t stop talking about it. I wonder what my book will grow up to be?
The bookshop seems to be in alphabetical order: Fry, Haake, Hawking. Is that a Miodownik down at the left?
Tuesday 25th September
Friday 21st September 2018
On stage at New Scientist Live with Clare Balding, Jamie Hindhaugh (BT Sport), Lawrence deLaglio and Hannah Cockroft for an hour’s panel session on the topic of “Technology in sport: is it always a good thing”. Great to work with such a professional as Clare – she was the first person I signed my book for. Sold my first 20 copies too!
18th September 2018
Very excited to receive advance copies of my book. I’m soooo excited, it feels like Christmas.
1st September 2018
I’m delighted to be on a panel at New Scientist Live on 21st September hosted by Clare Balding. The topic is “Technology in sport: is it always a good thing?”. It’ll be fun to talk about this with Hannah Cockroft, Jamie Hindhaugh and Lawrence Dallaglio.
10th July 2018
I had a lot of fun sitting on a panel at the British Paralympic Association in London. We talked about the use of technology in sport and in particular for paralympic athletes. Excited to talk with Stephanie Reid, 2017 T44 Long Jump World Champion and uber-dude.