Profile feature for Waitrose Health magazine
An appointment with… Dr Michael Mosley
He’s the have-a-go hero of medical documentaries, enthusiastically experimenting with everything from diet and exercise trends to genetic screening. But has Michael Mosley’s job changed the way he lives his life?
Dr Michael Mosley’s alarm normally gets him out of bed between 7.00 and 7.30 am. Then it’s straight into a routine of muscle strengthening exercises before so much as a morning cup of tea.
The ritual early start is a way of balancing his circadian rhythm and keeping his insomnia in check.
The exercises – including squats, lunges and star jumps – are, Michael, 61, says, essential to maintain his muscle mass. ‘We all lose muscle from the age of 30 unless we work at keeping strong,’ he explains. ‘But, like a lot of busy people, I know that if I didn’t do this workout first thing, I probably wouldn’t do it at all.’
It helps that Michael’s wife, Clare, a GP, is there to egg him on – they usually exercise together.
This is not the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) style of workout that you may have seen Michael do on TV (he made The Truth About Exercise back in 2012). ‘HIIT is aerobic exercise, usually very fast cycling,’ he says. ‘But this is a strength training equivalent. It’s also over very fast – it only takes me about 10 minutes.’
His medical documentaries – and there have now been around 30 of them – draw epic numbers of viewers. We all love the enthusiasm with which he throws himself into health experiments – but this is a far cry from the career he had once envisaged.
He started off as an investment banker after reading PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) at Oxford; but went back to university to study Medicine. His plan – to become a psychiatrist (he was fascinated by what made people tick) – was derailed when, just about to start his first job at the Royal Free Hospital, he stumbled across the BBC’s Trainee Assistant Producers’ scheme. He has now been at the BBC for over 30 years – mostly behind the scenes, producing or directing.
‘It was only by chance that I eventually became a presenter,’ he says. ‘Back in 1994 I’d made a film called Ulcer Wars about the maverick Australian doctor, Barry Marshall. He had infected himself with the bacteria H.pylori in order to prove that this was the true cause of stomach ulcers. (Before then, ulcers were thought to be caused by stress; Barry Marshall won the Nobel prize for his work).
‘I thought viewers would like to see how other doctors had pushed the boundaries and taken risks with their own health – in the name of science.’
Fifteen years later, his idea was finally taken up – but instead of “making” the programmes, Michael found himself on the other side of the camera, as presenter.
His shows have often challenged beliefs that were as dear to him as they are to many of his viewers, he says.
‘Take the 10,000 steps a day mantra – when I made The Truth About Exercise, I discovered it is better to take three brisk 10-minute walks a day. That’s partly because it’s so hard to sustain a brisk speed over a 10,000 step distance – and if you’re anything like the average person it’s also a struggle to get above 7000 steps on a daily basis. It is very time consuming and most of us have too little time.’
So does Michael find time to walk every day?
‘I try to – preferably with an early morning dog walk,’ he says. ‘I set off, either with Clare or alone listening to Radio 4’s Today programme, straight after my strength training workout.
‘Like getting up at the same time every day, an early morning dose of daylight is good for your circadian rhythm and keeping insomnia in check. In the winter it also lowers my risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s something I know I’m susceptible to.’
Back home from his walk, Michael will try to fit in 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation. ‘It’s fantastic for keeping stress under control and Clare is a great one for nudging me to do it – she recommends it to her patients too – but 10 minutes is usually my limit.’
Proven to boost positivity, in The Truth About Personality, Michael discovered that mindfulness meditation even has the power to change us from a “glass half empty” type to “glass half full”.
It may also help to protect against Alzheimer’s – a disease that is close to Michael’s heart. When he took the 23 and me genetic screening test for Are Health Tests Really a Good Idea? (2015), he learned he has the ApoE genotype associated with an average risk of developing Alzheimer’s. It could have been much worse. ‘There’s nothing you can do to change your genes – but there are things, such as reducing stress, that can protect your brain,’ he says.
Also good for brain health, are both intermittent fasting and the Mediterranean diet, Michael has discovered – courtesy of documentaries he has made. Both are regimes that have shaken up what he once held as sound health advice.
‘If you’d asked me 10 years ago about fasting for health, I’d have doubted it could have any benefits,’ he says. Making the 2012 documentary Eat, Fast and Live Longer changed all that – and led to his best-selling book The Fast Diet (written with journalist Mimi Spencer), which introduced the world to the idea of 5:2 intermittent fasting.
‘To start with I was interested in the evidence that intermittent fasting (eating just 500 or 800 calories a day one or two days a week) could lower blood sugar levels and help manage type 2 diabetes – I’d recently been diagnosed with the condition but it is now in remission,’ Michael says.
‘But, beyond weight loss and blood sugar control, it turned out that intermittent fasting had a raft of other potential benefits to offer. It can boost the immune system and has, at least in animals, been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and slow down the ageing process.’
Michael now fasts one day a week – when he needs to. ‘It’s a good way to bring my weight back under control if I see it creeping up,’ he says.
He now broadly sticks to a Mediterranean diet. ‘I used to be a low fat diet devotee – but a Spanish study (The Predimed Study) of 7447 participants found that those randomised to a Mediterranean diet had half the risk of developing diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease and dementia).
‘As well as a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, it includes plenty of nuts, seeds, olive oil, oily fish, eggs and dairy. As a bonus, a moderate amount of dark chocolate and red wine are not just permitted but actively encouraged!’
Michael describes his own attitude to food as flexitarian – he tries to have a few meat free days each week. ‘Especially if I am eating out, I will try one of the fish or veggie options on the menu – I find it harder to be creative with those at home. A steak I can cook any day.’
A typical breakfast in the Mosley household will be scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, or a Spanish style omelette using any leftover vegetables from the previous night’s dinner. ‘I also sprinkle on some chilli flakes and a bit of cheese,’ he says. ‘Cheese is permitted in the Mediterranean diet and I’m a big fan of dairy as it’s rich in things like calcium and iodine (essential for thyroid function). Even if you have a lactose intolerance, cheese and yogurt are normally OK and it’s just plain milk you’ll need to avoid.
‘I also have several cups of full caffeine coffee with my breakfast. I was surprised to learn learned from my 23 and me test that I am someone who metabolises both caffeine and alcohol very quickly. Clare, by contrast, is slow to metabolise both. It shows how different we all are.’
Lunch is usually something light – a soup or a sandwich – or nothing at all if Michael is super busy.
‘Then in the evening Clare or I (but usually Clare!) will cook something gut friendly,’ Michael says. ‘When I was working on The Clever Guts Diet and The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet (both published by Short Books), we learned that along with our low carb, Mediterranean diet, there were benefits to be had from fermented foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi which bolster the “good” bacteria in your gut, the so-called “microbiome”. Clare has since written The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet Recipe Book (also published by Short Books) to help people reduce their blood sugar levels and is now passionate about researching and creating healthy recipes. She tests them all out on us. Most are a resounding success, but others need tweaking before they go into a book. The world is not yet ready for chicken stew with seaweed.
‘What’s great news – for both of us – is when we hear we’re getting something right. One patient told Clare: “My husband’s beating me…” For a second Clare was worried. Then the patient added, “He’s lost five kilos, and I’ve only lost four…”’