Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Playing for prevention – a new way of looking at healthy exercise



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In 2009, Dr William Bird MBE was nominated by the Independent on Sunday as one of the 100 people to make people happy in Britain. He was awarded an MBE for his contributions to health and physical activity in the Queen’s New Year Honours in 2010. Here he tells us why connection is as important as exercise in creating a healthier Britain

After three decades working in healthcare, Dr William Bird MBE decided to stop prescribing pills and start using physical activity as a prevention. As the GP behind Intelligent Health and the man who created Beat the Street, Dr Bird is encouraging social interaction, increasing physical activity and improving the health of communities around the world. Intelligent Health has been named as a ‘New Radical’ by NESTA and The Guardian and won UK Active’s Physical Activity Campaign of the Year 2016.

Since starting as a GP in Reading in 1991, Dr Bird noticed a pattern among patients who suffered from diabetes and mental health issues. They were unmotivated to take part in exercise such as swimming, going outdoors or taking part in sports, which could help combat and prevent their ailments.

After thirty years working in the field, Dr Bird was inspired to launch his own innovative company to really make a difference to people’s lives and wellbeing. In 2006 Intelligent Health was launched, dedicated to increasing physical activity and improving the health of communities globally through initiatives such as Beat the Street.

Starting a revolution

Dr Bird explained: ‘Our aim is to create a revolution. We want to unite people and make a positive difference in communities and change their way of life.’

Beat the Street is a game which encourages people to go outdoors and connect to their neighbourhood. ‘Beat Boxes’ are strategically placed in green spaces, points of local interest and community hubs to encourage players to explore their local area.

Beat the Street is a 12-month intervention which increases activity levels across a community thanks to the simple, innovative game at its core. Over a six- to eight-week period, Beat the Street transforms a town or city into a giant game with thousands of residents moving across their community to receive points and prizes. Beat the Street can lift activity and build lasting changes to people’s behaviour that will greatly improve their physical and mental health reduce congestion and boost community cohesion.

Dr Bird first trialled the Beat the Street concept back in 2008 by using a series of hand-made wooden boxes with Nokia handhelds inside them across Hyde Park. After inviting employees of the Royal Park to take part, Dr Bird realised it had the potential to be rolled out across the on a much bigger scale.

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Whether it is families spending time together, teachers organising walks or neighbours meeting each other, Beat the Street is creating stronger, more resilient communities and a sense of social cohesion.

‘Walking isn’t just a physical activity,’ explains Dr Bird. ‘It’s a social interaction where people can connect with the outdoors and rediscover their roots. As doctors our role is based on reaction – we recommend activity and prescribe medicine – but Beat the Street is about preventing illnesses and issues before it gets to that stage. Moving upstream from the NHS, we are shifting behaviours in whole towns and whole cities. It’s amazing to see people taking ownership and mass participation. Some schemes have had over 40,000 people playing in just a week or two!

‘We focus on three key aspects: people, purpose and place. It connects people with others and the environment, combatting issues of loneliness which is a key factor that affects mental health. By taking part in something beneficial, people feel as though they have purpose.’

William Bird

The timing’s right

Beat the Street lasts six to eight weeks in an area, which is long enough for people to create a habit, but not too long that people become dependent on the game. ‘We didn’t want to create an app for Beat the Street as there are so many apps already on the market, and the idea of Beat the Street is to steer people away from constantly looking at their phones. For instance, the Pokémon Go app aimed to get people outdoors but failed in connecting people with each other. Getting people physically active not only improves health and wellbeing, it also saves public money and improves our environment. Changing behaviour isn’t easy, but our knowledgeable, innovative approach makes it possible – and fun.’

Intelligent Health has already implemented Beat the Street in 72 towns and cities across the UK and Europe and had over 840,000 people participating in the game. ‘It’s nothing short of incredible to see how the idea has taken off, how much pleasure the game brings to the participants and how the programme shifts behaviour.’

About the author

With well over 100 years experience between us, we've been around the editorial and medical blocks a few times. But we're still as keen as any young pup to root out what's new and inspiring.

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