Movement: The Magic Medicine – Hazel Wallace7 min read

Dr. Hazel Wallace at TEDXYouth@Glasgow conference.

Full text of Dr. Hazel Wallace’s talk ‘Movement: The Magic Medicine’ at TEDXYouth@Glasgow conference.

Dr. Hazel Wallace is the founder of The Food Medic, an NHS medical doctor, registered nutritionist (ANutR), and best-selling author.

Listen to Audio:


Dr. Hazel Wallace: Qualified Medical Doctor, Health Writer and Personal Trainer

Okay, show of hands, how many of you know someone who suffers from depression? Keep your hands up.

Now, how many of you know someone with type two diabetes?

Okay, and what about cancer?

And how many of you have a parent or grandparent who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?

Now take a look around the room. It seems that there isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t been affected by at least one of these diseases.

But what if I told you that I have a medicine that can reduce the risk of not just one, but all of these diseases, not to mention one that can help you live longer and make you smarter.

Would you believe me?

You probably wouldn’t. Some of you might even stand up and walk out of here. Either that or you might be handing me a very big check and I’m hoping it’s the latter.

But before you decide that I’m completely crazy, what if I could offer you years of scientific evidence to back it up? Or what if I told you what was free that might turn some heads?

There is one catch, however. You can’t swallow it in a pill or an illiquid and it’s not surgery or a magic potion.

Have you guessed?

Its exercise. So there’s a very famous quote by Dr. Robert Butler, which is:

If exercise could be purchased in a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.

Just think about that for a second. Do we have any other medicine that can reduce the risk of all of these diseases and in some cases reverse them? This is why movement is the magic medicine.

But before I tell you how, let me tell you why I’m standing here today speaking to you. When I was 14 years of age, I was sitting down having dinner with my family. I remember exactly what we were having. It was spaghetti bolognese, which is my favorite, and my dad had just come in after mowing the lawn and he sat down next to me.

There was a brief moment of silence as we all took it into our meals. And then that silence was broken by the sound of my dad’s fork hitting his place. And I turned to look at him and he was sitting there looking down at his open hand, would a very confused look on his face and he tried to call out, but all that came out was a mumble.

He was having a stroke. Later on that day he was taken to the hospital and later on that week he had an even bigger stroke which took his life and he died. 

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And a few weeks before this he’d been diagnosed with type two diabetes and high blood pressure, two major risk factors for having a stroke. And he was quickly prescribed medication to address these risk factors, but he wasn’t given any advice on diet or exercise, two other major risk factors for having a stroke.

After he died, something changed inside of me and I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to saving lives. I decided I wanted to be a doctor and now here I stand a 27-year-old woman, fully qualified as a doctor, equipped with all the skills that I may need to treat any weird and wonderful diseases that I may come across.

But if I’m completely honest with you, I don’t feel like I’m treating the majority of my patients, not in the long-term anyway. Because yes, if you break a leg or you get an infection, there are pills and surgery to fix that. But for my patients who have chronic diseases which develop over a long period of time and have multiple causes and risk factors such as depression and type two diabetes and cancer and dementia, one pill or one surgery is not going to fix up.

And of course, there’s still a place for medication and surgery. Absolutely, an exercise can’t fix everything. But for the diseases that can fix, we have the potential to change and even save lives because these chronic diseases are claiming lives at an ever-increasing rate.

And to explore this, I want to take you back in time.

Let’s go back to 2000. Back then HIV sat at number seven in the top 10 killer of the world. And thanks to advancements in modern medicine, by 2015 it completely disappears from the top 10 list and diabetes takes its spot.

And now one in 11 of us worldwide suffer from diabetes, 90% of which is type two diabetes. And in contrast to type one diabetes, type two diabetes can be prevented through diet and exercise.

And here’s the thing, this incredible decline in HIV, yet rapid increase in diabetes highlights exactly where we’re going wrong. We’re treating lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes as we would an infection such as HIV with a Pill.

You see HIV is caused by a virus. We know what that virus is and we can make drugs which target that virus and stop it from replicating. Type two diabetes on the other hand is not caused by one virus or even one thing. Rather it’s caused by our genes interacting with lifestyle factors such as an activity.

And what we know is that exercise can reduce your risk of type two diabetes by 50%. 50% that’s half.

But exercise doesn’t just transform our physical health, it can transform your mental health. I mean, how many of you have gone for a run or finished a workout class and regretted it? 

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I’m sure; I’m not saying it was easy, but I’m sure you finished feeling pretty incredible on top of the world. And that feeling is what we call a runner’s high. But we can apply to all types of exercise. And although that feeling is short-lived, every time you work out, you’re training your brain to be happier, to be smarter and to be healthier, because exercise makes your brain happier. And there’s evidence to show this.

So there was a big study done on 33,000 people and they follow them up after 11 years and they wanted to know two questions:

  1. Does exercise reduce her risk of depression,
  2. How much do we need to do to reduce this risk?

And what they found was, YES, exercise does reduce your risk of depression.

But the answer to the second question is even more encouraging because what they found was one hour… one hour of exercise a week could prevent 12% of future cases of depression. 

I mean, that’s pretty incredible, but exercise doesn’t just make you happier. Exercise can make you smarter. So every time you exercise, you are improving your ability to maintain intention. You are improving your ability to multitask, including men.

You are improving your ability to learn. This means you’re likely to do better at work, get better grades in school, and just make better life decisions.

So the next time you have an important interview or an exam, make sure you work out beforehand or even walk there for immediate brain-boosting effects.

And finally, exercise makes your brain healthier in the future.

By the time we’re 30 or 40, our brain begins to decrease in size. And this shrinkage affects important areas of the brain known as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex – areas of involved in learning attention and memory.

Now this is a normal process and it happens faster and slower in different people, but we know that exercise can slow this right down. 

So just like exercise trains your muscles to be stronger, access to exercise trains your brain and the connections within it to be stronger too, so that you are less likely to suffer from diseases that affect your brain, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

But just like any other muscle, if you don’t use it, you will lose that. Which brings me onto my next point.

How much do we need to do to get all of these incredible benefits?

As a rule of thumb, we should be doing about 30 minutes of exercise a day on most days of the week. But it doesn’t mean that you have to run a marathon or join a gym. It can be anything. It could be swimming, even dancing. The point is you’re moving and you’re getting your heart rate up on two days of the week.

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We should also be doing muscle exercises, but again, that can be in a gym if you want, but it can be squats, body weight exercises like pushups. 

And the good news is you don’t have to do it all at once and really every little counts. So the science says that even 15 minutes of exercise a day can improve your life expectancy by 14%. And any increase beyond that in activity will continue to give you those benefits to a certain point.

But let me make this super easy for you. You have the power to transform your health today and you can do it through these simple steps:

1. Move more and sit less.

You can break it up throughout the day. You can do it in three 10 minute bursts of exercise and meet your activity targets. Think of it as your exercise snacks.

2. Accountability

Find someone or something that keeps you accountable because usually it’s quite easy to get started, but the hardest part is to keep going. If you have someone or something like an app or a journal that keeps you accountable, you are more likely to stay motivated.

3. Get Organized

Make it super easy on yourself, plan ahead, packaging bag, or even leave a spare kit in work or school.  That way you can exercise whenever the opportunity arises.

4. Invite Friends.

I imagine most of you catch up with your friends over coffee or a drink. The next time you go for a coffee, grab that coffee to go and take your friend for a walk. You’re hitting two birds with one stone and you’re getting your activity in.

And lastly,

5. Commutes Count

Commuting is your single best time to get in your activity. I’ve worked at that. If I get off the tube two stops earlier, I can get a 25-minute brisk walk home. You can do that too. Even if you walk cycle run part of the way to work or school, you’re likely to meet your activity targets.

And finally, I want to leave you with a thought that you have the power to prevent disease. You can stop disease in its tracks. These diseases such as Alzheimer’s type two diabetes, depression are not an inevitable part of aging, but the solution is not in a pill.

The solution starts with you, with all of you, and by moving today and every day, you have the power to transform your health tomorrow, in 10 years, and in 50 years. Because movement really is the magic medicine and that is an idea worth spreading.

Thank you. 

– Dr. Hazel Wallace 

Dr. Hazel Wallace’s talk: ‘Movement: The Magic Medicine‘ at TEDXYouth@Glasgow conference.