Tag Archives: life

Brain game: bringing Paddington to life on screen | Daniel Glaser

The Paddington sequel, out this weekend, gives us a second helping of the antics of a fully computer generated lead character. In 1982 there was ET, but he was a puppet so physically existed on set. That was difficult enough, but CGI has other technical challenges. Fur is particularly problematic because of the complicated physics of the reflection of light from such irregular organic surfaces (even more difficult if the fur is covered in marmalade).

Giving the actors something to look at – Paddington will only come into the movie once filming has finished – poses even more problems because the actors must interact with something that isn’t there.

Since ancient times puppeteers have been able to produce human-like movements from simple bits of wood and string. Now it’s computer algorithms that translate biological essence into an artifical version.

Of course none of this would work were it not for our brains’ motor empathy which processes the film, giving the movements of a generated figure resonance – and thereby making Paddington such an attractive character.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London

Brain game: bringing Paddington to life on screen | Daniel Glaser

The Paddington sequel, out this weekend, gives us a second helping of the antics of a fully computer generated lead character. In 1982 there was ET, but he was a puppet so physically existed on set. That was difficult enough, but CGI has other technical challenges. Fur is particularly problematic because of the complicated physics of the reflection of light from such irregular organic surfaces (even more difficult if the fur is covered in marmalade).

Giving the actors something to look at – Paddington will only come into the movie once filming has finished – poses even more problems because the actors must interact with something that isn’t there.

Since ancient times puppeteers have been able to produce human-like movements from simple bits of wood and string. Now it’s computer algorithms that translate biological essence into an artifical version.

Of course none of this would work were it not for our brains’ motor empathy which processes the film, giving the movements of a generated figure resonance – and thereby making Paddington such an attractive character.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London

Brain game: bringing Paddington to life on screen | Daniel Glaser

The Paddington sequel, out this weekend, gives us a second helping of the antics of a fully computer generated lead character. In 1982 there was ET, but he was a puppet so physically existed on set. That was difficult enough, but CGI has other technical challenges. Fur is particularly problematic because of the complicated physics of the reflection of light from such irregular organic surfaces (even more difficult if the fur is covered in marmalade).

Giving the actors something to look at – Paddington will only come into the movie once filming has finished – poses even more problems because the actors must interact with something that isn’t there.

Since ancient times puppeteers have been able to produce human-like movements from simple bits of wood and string. Now it’s computer algorithms that translate biological essence into an artifical version.

Of course none of this would work were it not for our brains’ motor empathy which processes the film, giving the movements of a generated figure resonance – and thereby making Paddington such an attractive character.

Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London

The algorithms that are already changing your life

At Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, consultants are facing a familiar problem.

Patient numbers are surging. Age-related eye diseases are becoming more and more common, and as the British demographic gets ever older, numbers are predicted to increase by between a third and one half.

“We have enormous numbers of patients, we can barely cope,” says Professor Peng Tee Khaw, a consultant ophthalmic surgeon. “We need to look at new ways to deal with the issue.”

When a patient arrives at Moorfields, doctors will likely perform an eye scan that captures a 3D cross-section of the person’s retina. The images are complex and beautiful, but often hide subtle signs of eye disease. It takes an experienced pathologist to spot abnormalities and decide what treatment is needed and how urgently.

Q&A

How do machines learn?

A central goal of the field of artificial intelligence is for machines to be able to learn how to perform tasks and make decisions independently, rather than being explicitly programmed with inflexible rules. There are different ways of achieving this in practice, but some of the most striking recent advances, such as AlphaGo, have used a strategy called reinforcement learning. Typically the machine will have a goal, such as translating a sentence from English to French and a massive dataset to train on. It starts off just making a stab at the task – in the translation example it would start by producing garbled nonsense and comparing its attempts against existing translations. The program is then “rewarded” with a score when it is successful. After each iteration of the task it improves and after a vast number of reruns, such programs can match and even exceed the level of human translators. Getting machines to learn less well defined tasks or ones for which no digital datasets exist is a future goal that would require a more general form of intelligence, akin to common sense.

The process is not a fast one, but artificial intelligence is about to change that. Working with Google’s artificial intelligence group, DeepMind, doctors at Moorfields have trained an AI on a million anonymised eye scans from patients at various stages of age-related macular degeneration. The hope is that the AI will learn to spot the earliest signs of disease and ultimately deliver a diagnosis.

“If this is as accurate as a human being, the whole process of diagnosing disease and understanding what needs to be done can be done pretty well instantly,” says Khaw. It could make an enormous difference to Moorfields patients: for some conditions, early treatment can be sight-saving. The results so far are promising and a formal clinical trial could start as early as next year, Khaw says.

The Moorfields project is just one of a slew of instances where AI is making an impact. The technology is being woven into the fabric of life, to help people communicate, travel, meet partners and get loans. It targets customers to drive sales and monitors employees for suspicious behaviour. At the same time, it helps the emergency services, social workers and urban planners. For all its potential benefits though, critics warn that the rapid proliferation of such a powerful technology poses fresh threats to basic human rights, privacy and society in general. “There are certain standards that need to be in place for this to work well,” says Craig Fagan, policy director at Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation. “Companies have to make sure that what they’re putting out is not creating social harm.”

Medicine is primed to be a chief beneficiary of artificial intelligence. AI can diagnose diseases from telltale groups of symptoms, strange patterns in blood tests, and the subtle abnormalities that cells display as a disease begins takes hold. Time and again, AI systems are found to pick up signs of illness that are unknown to doctors, making the AIs more accurate as a result. Earlier this year, researchers at Nottingham University trained several AIs to spot people at risk of heart attack and found that all of them performed better than doctors.

Another AI built at Stanford University in California has learned to spot breast cancer in biopsy tissues. Pathologists typically make the diagnosis after checking a handful of tissue features, but the AI outperformed the cancer specialists by considering more than 6,000 factors.

Researchers have begun to use AI in mental health too. A Boston-based company, Cogito, is trialling a mobile phone app that monitors the tone of a person’s voice to detect mood changes that could flag a bout of depression. In China, researchers want to spot those at risk of suicide from their posts on Weibo, a Twitter-style microblogging platform.

Treatment is also ripe for an AI-fuelled revolution. Algorithms trained on piles of medical records can advise doctors on the most effective drugs for the patient before them, taking into account their genetic makeup and other conditions they have. Its success now relies as much on finding effective ways to share patients’ medical data without putting privacy at risk.

A UK government review of AI in October proposed “data trusts” that would allow the NHS, for example, to share sensitive information securely. Done well, the trusts could potentially prevent more unlawful uses of data, as happened when the Royal Free Hospital in London shared the health records of 1.6 million identifiable patients with DeepMind for its own artificial intelligence project.

Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, and author of a recent book on AI called Android Dreams, fears that a small number of tech giants could come to own our health and other data, giving them enormous power over our lives. “It will look like 1984, but it won’t be a government that’s in charge, it’ll be a corporation, and corporations are even less answerable than governments,” Walsh said. “In 10 or 20 years time, if Google is not broken up into separate parts, I will be severely worried for the future of democracy.”

The boom in AI applications will reach far beyond medicine. Online retailers have ramped up the use of AI to maximise sales; some dating sites use the technology to match potential partners; and cities such as Manchester are dabbling with AI-controlled traffic lights to ease congestion and reduce air pollution.

AI-powered cyber defences have also arrived. The UK-based company DarkTrace uses AI to spot suspect activity on companies’ computer networks, a strategy that revealed the curious case of a North American casino that was hacked from Finland via its wifi-controlled fishtank. DarkTrace recently detected a worrying new form attack: while monitoring activity for an Indian company, the tech firm spotted AI-enhanced malware that learned how to blend into its target network and lurk there without detection. Since India is one of the world’s testing grounds for new cyber attacks, more AI-powered malware could soon be targeting companies around the world.

AI is already helping the police to tackle crime. In 2014, a Kent police officer was on his way to interview the victim of a double motorbike theft when he heard the meeting had been delayed. With an hour to kill, the officer went to a nearby area that had been flagged that morning as ripe for crime by PredPol, the force’s AI tool. During the officer’s patrol, he spotted the missing motorbikes, made an arrest, and had the bikes returned to their owner.

Kent police has pioneered predictive policing in Britain. Having trialled and adopted PredPol, a US commercial product, in 2013, the force has gained more experience than most. Sceptical at first, officers introduced the tool after a trial revealed PredPol was 60% better at spotting where where crimes would take place than the force’s analysts. “There was nothing we could do that was more accurate,” said Jon Sutton, head of transformation, performance and analysis at Kent.

A predictive policing tool, PredPol, uses artificial intelligence to learn crime patterns from historical records and returns a daily list hotspots, where it predicts the crime risk is high.


A predictive policing tool, PredPol, uses artificial intelligence to learn crime patterns from historical records and returns a daily list hotspots, where it predicts the crime risk is high. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

PredPol uses artificial intelligence to learn crime patterns from historical records. The Kent system was trained on five years of crime data, and the algorithm is now updated daily with the force’s most recent three years of records. After crunching the data, PredPol returns a daily list of 180 hotspots, each 500 foot by 500 foot, where it predicts the crime risk is high. About 80% of the boxes never change: some areas always attract more crime than others. But the rest move around in line with patterns PredPol has learned from years of criminal activity. Some patterns are obvious and follow the clock or the seasons. There are more brawls near pubs and clubs at night time, and more incidents around Kent’s beaches in the height of summer. Others are more subtle and reflect trends in crimes, the movements of gangs, or new vulnerabilities in particular neighbourhoods.

The 180 PredPol hotspots cover about 0.1% of Kent, but within them, about 17% of crime and 21% of antisocial behaviour takes place. Officers are not sent to cover all the hotspots. Instead, the police, along with community support officers and community wardens, are briefed on the locations and conduct visible patrols in the area when they can. “It’s one of a number of crime prevention tools, but our officers have made arrests in areas where they say they wouldn’t have been were it not for PredPol,” said Sutton. “We don’t see it as a panacea. It doesn’t replace skills, knowledge and experience.”

Predictive policing has its critics though. A recent study by the University of Utah found that the software could trigger “runaway feedback loops” where officers are sent back to the same, often poor, neighbourhoods time and again. The problem arises when police in a hotspot make an arrest, leading the software to rank the area as an even higher crime risk area in future, and so send more police back the next day, regardless of the true crime rate.

In Kent, the police, community support officers and wardens only patrol PredPol boxes between scheduled duties. With 70% of their patrols having no power of arrest, the tool is primarily used to prevent crime rather than catch criminals. One patrol, for example, noticed a line of industrial bins lined up beneath open windows on a housing estate. “It was just a case of putting the bins on the other side of the car park,” said Nicola Endacott, Kent’s deputy head of analysis.

According to the government’s October AI review, the rise of AI has brought us to the threshold of a new era, with profound implications for society and the economy.

“Quality of life might very well be improved. In terms of solving the big problems from climate change to the supply of energy, AI should be able to help,” said Dame Wendy Hall, a co-author on the report.

“It’s going to be big.”

Anti-abortion Life charity will get cash from UK tampon tax

The government has confirmed that it is to award a quarter of a million pounds from an unpopular levy on women’s sanitary products to an anti-abortion organisation, despite objections from women’s groups and MPs.

There was a outcry earlier this year after the Observer revealed that £250,000 of the money raised from the so-called tampon tax – the 5% rate of VAT that is levied on sanitary products –would go to Life, a charity that campaigns against abortion.

The organisation also opposes plans for the expansion of sex education in primary schools and has been at the centre of controversy over the information provided by a network of unregulated pregnancy counselling centres.

Petitions opposing the grant gained half a million signatures, while under-pressure ministers subsequently said that the specifics of the grant agreements had yet to be finalised.

However, a reply by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to a Freedom of Information request has now revealed that the award from a £12m pot will be made, though Life will be “prohibited” from spending the money on publicity or on its controversial pregnancy counselling and education services.

Diana Johnson, one of a number of Labour MPs who had pressed the government to review the grant decision, said: “This decision is not in keeping with the spirit of the tampon-tax fund, which was intended to improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.

“This money would be much better spent on women’s organisations which truly reflect the values of this fund to empower and support women to make decisions about their lives, rather than an organisation that actively promotes restricting women’s choices.

“Many excellent women’s organisations will have lost funding bids to Life. I am very disappointed that ministers have made this decision in light of the public outcry when this was first put forward.”

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “It is not fitting for what is ultimately a tax on women’s bodies to be spent in this way when there are so many other projects supporting women and their choices which have not benefited .”

The government announced in March that 70 organisations would share £12m from the tampon-tax fund, which it said would improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.

A longlist said Life would receive £250,000 for “housing, practical help, counselling, emotional support and life-skills training for young pregnant women who are homeless”. The sum was among the largest donations on the list.

The tampon tax was the focus of a bitter controversy last year. Changes are expected next year that will remove VAT from sanitary products entirely. The government has already reduced the charge from 20% VAT to 5% but says it cannot go further at present because of EU competition rules.

Life said: “There is no need for ‘prohibition’ on how the grant is used. We have been very clear with the government in actually specifying that the grant will not be used for counselling or education. As we have stated before, all funds received from the government will be used to support vulnerable women in crisis.”

The DCMS said: “As set out in the grant agreement, Life will not be able to use the tampon tax grant to fund its counselling service, or its ‘Life Matters Education Service’ and is prohibited from spending the money on publicity or promotion.

“The grant is for a specific project in west London to support vulnerable, homeless or at-risk pregnant women who ask for their help. All payments will be made in arrears and on receipt of a detailed monitoring report.”

Anti-abortion Life charity will get cash from UK tampon tax

The government has confirmed that it is to award a quarter of a million pounds from an unpopular levy on women’s sanitary products to an anti-abortion organisation, despite objections from women’s groups and MPs.

There was a outcry earlier this year after the Observer revealed that £250,000 of the money raised from the so-called tampon tax – the 5% rate of VAT that is levied on sanitary products –would go to Life, a charity that campaigns against abortion.

The organisation also opposes plans for the expansion of sex education in primary schools and has been at the centre of controversy over the information provided by a network of unregulated pregnancy counselling centres.

Petitions opposing the grant gained half a million signatures, while under-pressure ministers subsequently said that the specifics of the grant agreements had yet to be finalised.

However, a reply by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to a Freedom of Information request has now revealed that the award from a £12m pot will be made, though Life will be “prohibited” from spending the money on publicity or on its controversial pregnancy counselling and education services.

Diana Johnson, one of a number of Labour MPs who had pressed the government to review the grant decision, said: “This decision is not in keeping with the spirit of the tampon-tax fund, which was intended to improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.

“This money would be much better spent on women’s organisations which truly reflect the values of this fund to empower and support women to make decisions about their lives, rather than an organisation that actively promotes restricting women’s choices.

“Many excellent women’s organisations will have lost funding bids to Life. I am very disappointed that ministers have made this decision in light of the public outcry when this was first put forward.”

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “It is not fitting for what is ultimately a tax on women’s bodies to be spent in this way when there are so many other projects supporting women and their choices which have not benefited .”

The government announced in March that 70 organisations would share £12m from the tampon-tax fund, which it said would improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls.

A longlist said Life would receive £250,000 for “housing, practical help, counselling, emotional support and life-skills training for young pregnant women who are homeless”. The sum was among the largest donations on the list.

The tampon tax was the focus of a bitter controversy last year. Changes are expected next year that will remove VAT from sanitary products entirely. The government has already reduced the charge from 20% VAT to 5% but says it cannot go further at present because of EU competition rules.

Life said: “There is no need for ‘prohibition’ on how the grant is used. We have been very clear with the government in actually specifying that the grant will not be used for counselling or education. As we have stated before, all funds received from the government will be used to support vulnerable women in crisis.”

The DCMS said: “As set out in the grant agreement, Life will not be able to use the tampon tax grant to fund its counselling service, or its ‘Life Matters Education Service’ and is prohibited from spending the money on publicity or promotion.

“The grant is for a specific project in west London to support vulnerable, homeless or at-risk pregnant women who ask for their help. All payments will be made in arrears and on receipt of a detailed monitoring report.”

Fighting the flu can be a matter of life and death – so what more can we do?

As Australia endures one of its worst flu seasons in more than a decade, questions are being raised about how the public can be better prepared and what can be done to protect the most vulnerable.

At least 170,000 influenza cases have been confirmed this season, almost two-and-a-half times more than in 2016. The federal health department logged 72 flu-related deaths by Thursday, including that of eight-year-old Rosie Andersen in Melbourne. Experts say Australia is on track for a record number of confirmed cases.

Sarah Hawthorn, from the regional town of Cobram in northern Victoria, remains in a critical condition in hospital after contracting the flu late in her pregnancy. After giving birth to a healthy boy, she was placed in an induced coma.

Despite tragic cases such as these, the spike in flu cases is a pattern that plays out globally every 10 to 15 years. The difficulty with influenza viruses is that different viruses circulate the population each year that may not be covered by current flu vaccines, and those viruses that are covered can mutate, a phenomenon known as viral drift, making the vaccinations against them less effective. Vaccines also remain effective for only one season.

Unlike other vaccines that are more than 95% effective at protecting against a specific disease when a full dose is administered – for example, the chickenpox and polio ones – the flu vaccine is, on average, only 40% protective, although this varies depending on the flu strain. By comparison, staying home from work when suffering the flu, hand-washing, and covering one’s mouth when coughing and sneezing protects against spreading the disease 68% of the time.

Leading infectious diseases expert Dr Peter Collignon has called for better identification of patients suffering bacterial infections secondary to the influenza virus.

Collignon, a professor of microbiology and a medical doctor, who has worked with the World Health Organisation and as a government adviser, says the rise in the number of cases could also be because laboratory tests to diagnose influenza are improving almost every year. But he says the current peak in cases should not come as a surprise.


The vaccine for H3N2 basically didn’t work and was zero per cent effective for those over 65

Dr Peter Collignon

“The strain we are predominantly seeing this year is influenza A strain H3N2, and this is the same strain that hit last winter in the UK and other European centres and caused problems there,” Collignon says.

“What they found in those countries was that the vaccine for H3N2 basically didn’t work and was zero per cent effective for those over 65. So maybe you could say it was predictable we would see similar issues in Australia this season.

“The thing is, yes, influenza knocks a lot of people around but most recover, have only mild infections, and some don’t even suffer symptoms. Basically, we need a better vaccine, but that’s tricky because it’s a difficult virus that changes all of the time.”

Given the vaccine’s lack of efficacy and mutations of flu strains, Collignon says more research and funding needs to be directed towards identifying those most at risk of dying once they have the flu.

While it is well known that pregnant women, those over the age of 65 or in nursing homes, children under five and those with chronic conditions such as heart or lung disease are more susceptible to the flu, Collignon says monitoring these groups alone will not necessarily allow doctors to pinpoint those at risk of death.


Death seems to especially affect those who got sick, got better, then got sick again

Dr Peter Collignon

“The majority of people die not of the influenza but due to secondary bacterial infections,” he says.

“Of the children who die after contracting the flu, they find golden staph as a complication in a lot of them. One of the things the flu perversely does is set up the throat to become ripe for bacterial infection. Death seems to especially affect those who got sick, got better, then got sick again.”

This is important because these bacterial infections can usually be treated with antibiotics. But routinely treating people with antibiotics without knowing if they have had a bacterial infection, can lead to antibiotic resistance, Collignon says.

“Only 1 or 2% of those with flu get these secondary infections, so we must get better at identifying them and identifying them early,” he says. “That’s where we need more research, and education, so that parents know if their child gets sick for a few days from the flu, then seems to get better and then worse, they should get their child treated.”

In the case of influenza-related deaths, hospitals should record the course of illness and whether the symptoms seemed to improve for a time, he says.

He emphasises the importance of those in higher-risk groups getting the vaccine, including pregnant women, who can get immunised for free under the national immunisation program.

“Even 30% or 40% protection against going to hospital is better than nothing,” Collignon says.

Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, has asked the chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, to ensure that all aged care workers are properly vaccinated. There is no mandatory requirement for this at present.

“I will work with the medical authorities, healthcare workers and the aged care providers on how we can make it compulsory for those working in aged care facilities,” Hunt says.
“We cannot continue to have a situation where people whose immunity is already low are at risk from others who may be infected.”

Get up, stand up: including exercise in everyday life healthier than gym, says study

Incorporating physical activity into our everyday lives, from taking the stairs to holding “walkaround” meetings in the office, is more likely to protect us from heart disease and an early death than buying a gym membership, according to the author of a major new global study.

The study, published in the Lancet medical journal, found that one in 20 cases of heart disease and one in 12 premature deaths around the globe could be prevented if people were more physically active. It compared 130,000 people in 17 countries, from affluent countries like Canada and Sweden to some of the least affluent, including Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

While 30 minutes of exercise per day for five days a week, which most guidelines recommend, reduces heart disease and deaths, one to two hours a day is the optimal amount of physical activity, said lead author Professor Scott Lear, of Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences in Vancouver, Canada.

Most people will think they cannot incorporate that much physical activity into their life, he said. “They will think ‘I’m stressed out and have to make dinner – and then do exercise for two hours!’” he said.

But the study showed that those people who have the highest activity levels are those for whom it is part of their everyday working lives. In developing countries, more people still have physically taxing jobs but as they become more economically prosperous, their activity levels fall.

“They are going from sweeping the floor to buying a vacuum,” said Lear.

He does not advocate selling the vacuum cleaner, but we could all incorporate more activity into our lives rather than relying on occasional forays to the gym or swimming pool. “It becomes routine as opposed to an endeavour,” he said. “Sitting for hours is not good for hearts or the physical body. Getting up every 20 to 30 minutes for a walk around is beneficial. I have a cooking timer.

“We spend a lot of time in meetings. If it is just two or three people, why not have a walkaround meeting?”

He also suggests playing with children in the park rather than sitting watching them, increasing the walk to work by getting off the tube or bus early and taking the stairs rather than the lift.

The authors found that the more physically active people were, the lower their risk of heart disease or an early death.

“Participating at even low physical activity confers benefit and the benefit continues to increase up to high total physical activity,” says the study. People who did more than 750 minutes of brisk walking or equivalent activity per week reduced their risk of death by 36%.

But the study notes that “the affordability of other CVD [cardiovascular disease] interventions such as consuming fruits and vegetables and generic CVD drugs is beyond the reach of many people in low-income and middle-income countries; however, physical activity represents a low-cost approach to CVD prevention.”

While the amount of physical work people do in low income countries reduces heart disease, their chances of surviving if they do have a heart attack or stroke are lower because their health services are not as advanced.

The World Health Organisation recommends that adults aged 18-64 years old do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, as well as muscle strengthening exercises at least two days a week. But it is thought that almost a quarter (23%) of the world’s population are not meeting physical activity guidelines.

The study is the first to compare physical activity and heart disease levels in countries of varying affluence.

“The clear-cut results reinforce the message that exercise truly is the best medicine at our disposal for reducing the odds of an early death,” said Dr James Rudd, a senior lecturer in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Cambridge.If a drug company came up with a medicine as effective as exercise, they would have a billion-dollar blockbuster on their hands and a Nobel prize in the post.”

“There is a trend for more heart disease in lower income groups both within and between populations,” said John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London. “In the UK it has been shown that lower social class is associated with more heart disease. Walking is easy and cheap. This study should encourage governments to rebalance health budgets away from high tech treatment of heart disease to promoting simple strategies of prevention like walking.”

Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation said: “In an age where we’re living increasingly busy but often sedentary lives in the west, weaving physical activity into our daily routines has never been more important, not only to improve our physical health but also overall well-being. Increased physical activity could have an even greater beneficial impact in lower income countries, due to its low its cost and the high incidence of heart disease in those countries.”

Get up, stand up: including exercise in everyday life healthier than gym, says study

Incorporating physical activity into our everyday lives, from taking the stairs to holding “walkaround” meetings in the office, is more likely to protect us from heart disease and an early death than buying a gym membership, according to the author of a major new global study.

The study, published in the Lancet medical journal, found that one in 20 cases of heart disease and one in 12 premature deaths around the globe could be prevented if people were more physically active. It compared 130,000 people in 17 countries, from affluent countries like Canada and Sweden to some of the least affluent, including Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

While 30 minutes of exercise per day for five days a week, which most guidelines recommend, reduces heart disease and deaths, one to two hours a day is the optimal amount of physical activity, said lead author Professor Scott Lear, of Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences in Vancouver, Canada.

Most people will think they cannot incorporate that much physical activity into their life, he said. “They will think ‘I’m stressed out and have to make dinner – and then do exercise for two hours!’” he said.

But the study showed that those people who have the highest activity levels are those for whom it is part of their everyday working lives. In developing countries, more people still have physically taxing jobs but as they become more economically prosperous, their activity levels fall.

“They are going from sweeping the floor to buying a vacuum,” said Lear.

He does not advocate selling the vacuum cleaner, but we could all incorporate more activity into our lives rather than relying on occasional forays to the gym or swimming pool. “It becomes routine as opposed to an endeavour,” he said. “Sitting for hours is not good for hearts or the physical body. Getting up every 20 to 30 minutes for a walk around is beneficial. I have a cooking timer.

“We spend a lot of time in meetings. If it is just two or three people, why not have a walkaround meeting?”

He also suggests playing with children in the park rather than sitting watching them, increasing the walk to work by getting off the tube or bus early and taking the stairs rather than the lift.

The authors found that the more physically active people were, the lower their risk of heart disease or an early death.

“Participating at even low physical activity confers benefit and the benefit continues to increase up to high total physical activity,” says the study. People who did more than 750 minutes of brisk walking or equivalent activity per week reduced their risk of death by 36%.

But the study notes that “the affordability of other CVD [cardiovascular disease] interventions such as consuming fruits and vegetables and generic CVD drugs is beyond the reach of many people in low-income and middle-income countries; however, physical activity represents a low-cost approach to CVD prevention.”

While the amount of physical work people do in low income countries reduces heart disease, their chances of surviving if they do have a heart attack or stroke are lower because their health services are not as advanced.

The World Health Organisation recommends that adults aged 18-64 years old do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, as well as muscle strengthening exercises at least two days a week. But it is thought that almost a quarter (23%) of the world’s population are not meeting physical activity guidelines.

The study is the first to compare physical activity and heart disease levels in countries of varying affluence.

“The clear-cut results reinforce the message that exercise truly is the best medicine at our disposal for reducing the odds of an early death,” said Dr James Rudd, a senior lecturer in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Cambridge.If a drug company came up with a medicine as effective as exercise, they would have a billion-dollar blockbuster on their hands and a Nobel prize in the post.”

“There is a trend for more heart disease in lower income groups both within and between populations,” said John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London. “In the UK it has been shown that lower social class is associated with more heart disease. Walking is easy and cheap. This study should encourage governments to rebalance health budgets away from high tech treatment of heart disease to promoting simple strategies of prevention like walking.”

Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation said: “In an age where we’re living increasingly busy but often sedentary lives in the west, weaving physical activity into our daily routines has never been more important, not only to improve our physical health but also overall well-being. Increased physical activity could have an even greater beneficial impact in lower income countries, due to its low its cost and the high incidence of heart disease in those countries.”

Get up, stand up: including exercise in everyday life healthier than gym, says study

Incorporating physical activity into our everyday lives, from taking the stairs to holding “walkaround” meetings in the office, is more likely to protect us from heart disease and an early death than buying a gym membership, according to the author of a major new global study.

The study, published in the Lancet medical journal, found that one in 20 cases of heart disease and one in 12 premature deaths around the globe could be prevented if people were more physically active. It compared 130,000 people in 17 countries, from affluent countries like Canada and Sweden to some of the least affluent, including Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

While 30 minutes of exercise per day for five days a week, which most guidelines recommend, reduces heart disease and deaths, one to two hours a day is the optimal amount of physical activity, said lead author Professor Scott Lear, of Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences in Vancouver, Canada.

Most people will think they cannot incorporate that much physical activity into their life, he said. “They will think ‘I’m stressed out and have to make dinner – and then do exercise for two hours!’” he said.

But the study showed that those people who have the highest activity levels are those for whom it is part of their everyday working lives. In developing countries, more people still have physically taxing jobs but as they become more economically prosperous, their activity levels fall.

“They are going from sweeping the floor to buying a vacuum,” said Lear.

He does not advocate selling the vacuum cleaner, but we could all incorporate more activity into our lives rather than relying on occasional forays to the gym or swimming pool. “It becomes routine as opposed to an endeavour,” he said. “Sitting for hours is not good for hearts or the physical body. Getting up every 20 to 30 minutes for a walk around is beneficial. I have a cooking timer.

“We spend a lot of time in meetings. If it is just two or three people, why not have a walkaround meeting?”

He also suggests playing with children in the park rather than sitting watching them, increasing the walk to work by getting off the tube or bus early and taking the stairs rather than the lift.

The authors found that the more physically active people were, the lower their risk of heart disease or an early death.

“Participating at even low physical activity confers benefit and the benefit continues to increase up to high total physical activity,” says the study. People who did more than 750 minutes of brisk walking or equivalent activity per week reduced their risk of death by 36%.

But the study notes that “the affordability of other CVD [cardiovascular disease] interventions such as consuming fruits and vegetables and generic CVD drugs is beyond the reach of many people in low-income and middle-income countries; however, physical activity represents a low-cost approach to CVD prevention.”

While the amount of physical work people do in low income countries reduces heart disease, their chances of surviving if they do have a heart attack or stroke are lower because their health services are not as advanced.

The World Health Organisation recommends that adults aged 18-64 years old do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, as well as muscle strengthening exercises at least two days a week. But it is thought that almost a quarter (23%) of the world’s population are not meeting physical activity guidelines.

The study is the first to compare physical activity and heart disease levels in countries of varying affluence.

“The clear-cut results reinforce the message that exercise truly is the best medicine at our disposal for reducing the odds of an early death,” said Dr James Rudd, a senior lecturer in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Cambridge.If a drug company came up with a medicine as effective as exercise, they would have a billion-dollar blockbuster on their hands and a Nobel prize in the post.”

“There is a trend for more heart disease in lower income groups both within and between populations,” said John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London. “In the UK it has been shown that lower social class is associated with more heart disease. Walking is easy and cheap. This study should encourage governments to rebalance health budgets away from high tech treatment of heart disease to promoting simple strategies of prevention like walking.”

Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation said: “In an age where we’re living increasingly busy but often sedentary lives in the west, weaving physical activity into our daily routines has never been more important, not only to improve our physical health but also overall well-being. Increased physical activity could have an even greater beneficial impact in lower income countries, due to its low its cost and the high incidence of heart disease in those countries.”