Getting fit needn’t be a marathon

Dr Andrew Murray's Scotland to Sahara run was the equivalent of 101 marathons
Dr Andrew Murray's Scotland to Sahara run was the equivalent of 101 marathons
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THE moment I realise his hands are in his pockets is the moment the physical fitness chasm between us is at its widest.

Admittedly, I knew there could be no comparison in terms of our respective athleticism. Dr Andrew Murray is a man who has run up Everest, who came 50th in a field of 900 runners in the 151-mile Marathan Des Sables in trainers held together with glue, and who ran 2659 miles from Scotland to the Sahara – the equivalent of 101 marathons – in just 78 days. There was no doubting his running credentials.

Mine on the other hand amount to last year’s Race for Life and a Cancer Research 10k around Hopetoun House seven years ago. Still, I have good trainers.

And after all, this wasn’t a race, just a gentle jog around Holyrood Park and the lower reaches of Arthur’s Seat while he explained why he’s been appointed the Scottish Government’s physical activity champion and why he’s on a mission to get people moving. I didn’t think it could go too embarrassingly wrong.

However, before long all I can do is concentrate on breathing while the 31-year-old chats. Then when I glance at him to see if he’s even broken a sweat, it’s just to discover that he’s more or less having a pleasant stroll on a lovely winter’s morning, hands in his pockets, looking like he might start to unroll a newspaper and do the crossword.

“I’ve had chilblains before so I like to keep my hands warm, that’s all,” he says rather courteously. My mind is too focused on putting one foot in front of the other for any kind of riposte.

“But the point about getting active is just to get out and do what you can, find something you like that you’ll want to keep doing, and then just go for it,” he says. “Not everyone has to run across the plains of Africa. Walking is a great activity, as is cycling. . . the secret is to enjoy it. Fitness these days is a leisure activity, so if you’re going to give up your time to do it, then do something you actually like.”

Not that running was always his forte. He may be tall and lean with a stride-length which could be compared to that of Roald Dahl’s BFG, but when he was just two his family moved to Kenya, making him the only ginger-haired boy in his class and the one least likely to succeed when it came to running vast distances.

When his family returned to Scotland when he was 12, it was to Edinburgh and from that point as a pupil at George Heriot’s it was football, squash and, in one of those nearly moments of fate, tennis which made up his sporting life.

However, by the time he was studying medicine at Aberdeen University, he was, he says, “lethargic and pretty sedentary”. “I remember agreeing to play football and realising how unfit I was, so I thought I’d better do something about it. I decided I could probably run and so I entered a 10k. I thought I would manage it, but at 6k I had to stop and walk . . . I’d never been happier to get home and have a beer.”

The running bug got a real grip though while he was travelling after university with his girlfriend – now wife – Jennie. In Nepal on a trek through the mountainous Annapurna Sanctuary, he offered to retrieve some valuables a friend had left halfway up a hillside. Jogging the six-mile, 1000-metre incline to get them he met some runners training for the Everest Marathon. On the spur of the moment he decided to take part.

“A new world opened up after that,” he says. “From there I really got into it, and pushed myself harder and harder, until I ran to the Sahara,” he says, laughing. “I’ve now become the kind of person who can’t just sit around doing nothing. I like to be challenged.”

He’s certainly been that in some of the world’s toughest races, in some of the toughest conditions. He won the 6633 Arctic Ultra (a non-stop, self-sufficient foot race through the Arctic) and came first in Egypt’s seven-day, 250km ultra-endurance desert run, The Sahara Race. During the Marathan Des Sables he was underprepared, turning up in a football shirt with some provisions from the local market under his arm, while everyone else was kitted out in hi-tech clothing and with rucksacks full of survival gear. It was only thanks to his fellow runners lending him glue to fix his trainers and tape for his blisters that he placed 50th out of a field of around 900. Then came the Gobi Challenge in 2009, and a route which took him through southern Mongolia. It was during this race that he had the idea for Scotland2Sahara, to raise £100,000 for the Yamma Trust, a Mongolian charity aiming to build a school for the deaf in the South Gobi desert as well as provide funding for medical care in rural areas, and accommodation and services for mentally ill people.

With such physical feats to his name it’s hardly surprising that the Scottish Government came calling in its bid to get us all, as Blur once put it, to cut down on our porklife and get some exercise.

“It’s certainly going to be a different kind of challenge,” he says. “The plan is basically to get Scotland to be more active. I’m working with the chief medical officer and various other health professionals and the public to get the message out there that physical activity can be fun. It makes you healthy, has been shown to improve quality of life and it’s available to every- body. It’s not just for people who want to be in the Olympics – or who want to run to Morocco.”

He adds: “The way we’re built means we have to exercise to stay healthy. The statistics show that only 70 per cent of kids get 60 minutes of exercise a day, which is the minimum they need to keep healthy. Being physically active improves achievement and concentration at school, and also prevents heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer in later life. It is the single best present parents can give their children. Just 60 minutes of physical activity per day will help children become healthier, happier adults.

“For adults it’s at least 30 minutes five times a week, otherwise you’re looking at diabetes and cardiovascular problems. More than 60 per cent of adults don’t get the required minimum of exercise a week. To increase that by one per cent over the next five years would make a huge difference to levels of heart disease in this country.

“There’s a tendency these days to be lethargic, modern life has done that to us, but we need to shake that off. Prevention is better than cure and also much cheaper for the NHS. This is the fundamental health challenge of our age – to get people moving.”

Murray, who admits that he is driven by a fear of “not trying” rather than failing, is certainly the obvious person to deliver the message, and his zeal to get people exercising is driven by his medical background, years working as a GP and, more recently, thanks to becoming a practitioner of sports medicine, doctor to Hearts football club and golf’s European Tour.

“I really enjoy being a GP, trying to find solutions for people’s health problems, it is really satisfying,” he says. “But because of my job I know without doubt that a lack of physical activity and poor health are connected.

“The World Health Organisation recommends that everyone should do 150 minutes of moderate exercise such as brisk walking per week. Only 35 to 45 per cent of us manage this in Scotland, but if everyone met this target the health gain produced would be astonishing and it would dramatically ease the burden on the NHS.”

He adds: “The preventative approach being taken by the government and the chief medical officer is inspiring. And we’re not telling people they have to do it – I know I don’t like being told what to do – we’re just giving them the information and the solutions to improve their health.

“People know the alcohol guidelines, they know how much fruit and veg they’re supposed to eat a day, this is what we’re trying to do for physical exercise, to get the message out about 30 minutes, five times a week.

“Everyone thinks being physically active is expensive, that you need to join a gym or go to a class, but it’s not the case. I wasn’t a natural runner at first but I had a go. And I do know that exercise is not easy for everyone, but I am not a fantastically fast or good runner. I am someone who can run a bit and who has taken it to an extreme.

“I think it’s important to realise that, with preparation, fairly normal people can go out and complete what seems a difficult objective, even if that’s just cycling to work.”

• For more information on Active Nation and Take Life On campaigns visit www.ouractivenation.co.uk or www.takelifeon.co.uk

MAKING A MOVE

A CAMPAIGN to get children doing at least 60 minutes of exercise a day was launched in Edinburgh by Dr Murray and the Scottish Government’s Commonwealth Games and Sport Minister, Shona Robison, yesterday.

The Take Life On initiative aims to give parents help to get their children get active and achieve health benefits as a result.

The most recent Scottish Health Survey found that 70 per cent of children meet the minimum physical activity recommendation of an hour a day. For adults, the recommendation is 30 minutes, five times a week.

Ms Robison said: “One of the most fundamental health challenges facing our nation is convincing young people to spend more time taking part in physical activity.

“This year’s campaign highlights to parents simple changes they can make to their child’s life to get them active and reduce the likelihood of illness later in life.”