Sitting is the new smoking, says leading NHS expert Sir Muir Gray

    18 February 2016

    Sir Muir Gray is on a mission. ‘Down with chairs!’ he exclaims. He wants people to swap their baffies — Scottish slang for slippers — for walking shoes and get moving if they want to enjoy a long and productive life.

    The distinguished Glasgow-born professor, one of the UK’s leading medical figures, is sitting down when we meet — rare for this energetic 71-year-old, since he currently juggles three jobs. He shares his prescription for a better life while drinking tea at the Royal Society of Medicine in London and addresses the issue of walking deficiency syndrome (WDS).

    This is something that particularly afflicts ‘the elderly’, a term he would also like to get rid of, along with those baffies, since it lumps everyone from 65 to 105 into a single entity. ‘Beware of generalisations,’ says the former chief of knowledge for the NHS.

    As well as WDS, a major cause of the current obesity epidemic, there is ESS — ‘excessive sitting syndrome’. Sitting, in the opinion of this acclaimed doctor, is the new smoking. His message — spelled out in his warm, witty and wise book Sod 70! The Guide to Living Well — is that the older we get, the more we should avoid tiredness, fatness and sloth. ‘It is never too late, or too early, to reduce your risk of developing disease by becoming fitter and adopting a positive attitude to life,’ he says. ‘Seventy-year-olds can still increase their strength, stamina, suppleness, skill and psychology.’

    Ageing is not a disease, he declares. ‘It is a complex process not yet fully understood. There is a genetic component but, with few exceptions, the risk of disease, and therefore how long we live, is determined more by lifestyle and environment than genes.’ Most disease, he explains, occurs as a result of living in an unhealthy environment or with an unhealthy lifestyle, and the longer you are exposed to it, the more likely it is that disease will develop later in life.

    ‘Look at me,’ he urges, his shock of white hair standing to attention. ‘At 71 I get a little bit breathless, but that’s nothing to do with ageing. It’s almost certainly the result of spending the first 12 years of my life in the filthy fogs of Glasgow before the Clean Air Act of 1956. My parents both smoked — Player’s cigarettes — and I had an attack of measles before antibiotics were used to prevent complications, which left me with some lung damage.

    ‘When I was 67 I had a little heart attack and had a stent fitted. I’m celebrating my stent’s fourth anniversary this week.’

    He certainly practises what he preaches — he gets up then cleans his teeth standing on one leg to maintain and improve his balance. He then does at least ten minutes of exercise to increase and maintain muscle strength, using weights or a resistance band. He also does 72 press-ups — one for every year of his life plus an extra one in case he has miscounted. He cycles everywhere in Oxford, where he has lived with his wife and their two daughters since 1972. And if not on his bike, he walks. You can also find him on YouTube promoting the benefits and joys of walking, and he has even written a book about it, Dr Gray’s Walking Cure. He spends very little time sitting down. His laptop lives on top of a filing cabinet so he can write standing up.

    His next book is Sod It! Eat Well: Heathy Eating in Your 60s, 70s and Beyond, co-authored with nutritionist Anita Bean. He himself follows the Mediterranean diet, eating lots of fruit and veg, olive oil and little or no red meat, and is the picture of health with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes twinkling with puckish humour.

    ‘I’m an incurable optimist,’ he says. ‘I get that from my mother, who was a gym teacher in some of Glasgow’s toughest schools — my father died when I was seven years old. I recall her looking out of the window at the rain driving down and saying, “I think the sun’s trying to break through.” She had such a positive attitude – and I’ve inherited that from her.’

    His mother came from farming stock in Scotland. ‘I wanted to be a farmer when I was growing up, but there wasn’t the money to buy a farm. Mind you, I could still milk a herd of cows today. So I decided to become a vet, a hard job. After two years studying in Glasgow — all those placentas, all those hooves — I got off the bus one day at Partick Cross and I thought, “I’m going to study medicine.” I loved it.’

    Knighted in 2005 for his services to the NHS, he is inspirational to many, though he pooh-poohs the idea with a shrug and simply says that he’s ‘good at juggling a lot of material at once, always wondering “Why?” As a student I was always asking questions.’ Judging by his many different healthcare roles he has never stopped. Here’s to many more years of wondering why.


    Professor Sir Muir Gray has worked in public health for 40 years, focusing on disease prevention (particularly helping people to stop smoking) and population ageing. Here’s the rest of his impressive CV…


    Exercise and Diet

    He worked with older people on exercise, eating sensibly, and preventing hypothermia through better housing.

    Cars to cancer

    He developed screening programmes for breast and cervical cancer, taking inspiration from efficient car manufacturer Toyota. He developed screening for children and older people.

    Health Honours

    He was awarded a CBE in 1998 and knighted in 2005 for pioneering foetal, maternal and other screening.

    Knowledge chief

    He was appointed chief knowledge officer of the NHS, founded the National Knowledge Services and helped develop the National Library for Health. He helped create of NHS Choices, and campaigned to help older people get online.

    Climate champion

    He was a founder of the National Campaign for Walking and a charity to help the NHS to reduce its carbon footprint. He also works with Spring Chicken, a company offering advice on nutrition and wellbeing for older people.

    This feature originally appeared in the quarterly Benenden members’ magazine, Be Healthy.