Dr William Bird - how I founded the Beat the Street interactive health game
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 February 2020
We caught up with a man making a difference: Dr William Bird, who is responsible for turning our towns and villages into giant games.
"When I became a GP in 1991 I realised there were many people with conditions, such as diabetes and other lifestyle issues, where medication was not the answer," says Dr William Bird, from Reading. "These people could benefit from getting more active and doing more exercise. But going to the gym is not easy or enjoyable for many, so I devised the Health Walks scheme - a free and accessible way of getting people to start walking. These became popular thanks to the companionship and social nature of the sessions."
A year later, Dr Bird created Green Gyms. "Again, these contain elements of nature and socialising together in fun and free outdoor sessions where people join forces to take part in practical activities, such as planting trees, sowing meadows and establishing wildlife ponds," he says.
Today, Health Walks and Green Gyms are thriving throughout the UK with an estimated four million people having gone through a scheme over the years.
But that wasn't enough for Dr Bird. "In 1999, I knocked on the door at the Met Office and eventually they let me in as the first medical director," he says. "We worked on linking air quality with poor health and the effect that climate change would have on the health of populations -a new concept at the time."
In 2006, Dr Bird became the health lead at Natural England, creating the Natural Health Service that is still gaining momentum in many countries as we realise how nature is important for health. "This resulted in the Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health that I co-edited, showing the amazing amount of evidence that has accumulated," he says.
In 2010, at the age of 48, Dr Bird started Intelligent Health with £250, and lots of enthusiasm, but he admits, no experience in running a business.
"Intelligent Health was set up to look at innovative ways to get whole populations active by using the outdoors and green space," he says. "I am lucky to live in Berkshire, just outside Reading, and have three children now scattered around the country at universities or in jobs. Berkshire is a wonderful part of the world! Reading is a thriving town with lots of green space, surrounded by the most beautiful countryside. A lot of the work we do here at Intelligent Health is to promote the importance of physical activity, and this exercise takes place in green spaces so that people are connected with nature. I am a keen runner and like to spend time in green spaces whenever I can, and there is plenty of opportunity in Berkshire, particularly running along the Thames."
Beat the Street is the innovative programme that turns a town into a family game to improve the health of communities around the world. The game rewards players who cycle, run or walk with points and prizes, encouraging families to get out and about and increase their physical activity.
The game works through 'Beat Boxes', which are strategically placed in green spaces, areas of local interest and community hubs to encourage players to get outdoors and explore. Players tap radio frequency transmission cards on Beat Boxes to gain points for their schools or community groups and which are displayed on leader boards online, where they can win prizes.
Beat the Street lasts six to eight weeks in a town or city which, according to research by Intelligent Health, is long enough to instill a habit in the community but not too long that people become dependent.
By engaging with communities through a fun game, Dr Bird says Beat the Street can lift activity and build lasting changes to people's behaviour that will improve their physical and mental health, reduce congestion and boost community cohesion.
"Over the past 10 years, Beat the Street has had more than 1.2million participants and has been rolled out across the UK and worldwide," he says. "The response has been incredible. This past year has seen the total number of people who have played Beat the Street exceed 1 million! We worked with Sport England, supported by £3.3m of National Lottery funding, to deliver 10 games and the response has been exceptional with many towns asking if the game could return."
So what is Intelligent Health's goal for 2020? "To launch what we're calling the 'fourth revolution in healthcare', which is a new way of working in partnership with health organisations, planning, environment, active travel and nature stakeholders to ensure people are empowered to take responsibility for their own healthy lifestyles," says Dr Bird. "We'll be expanding our new healthy workplaces programme where we work with corporates to ensure their staff are enjoying a good work-life balance. Finally, we want to use satellite data to help people and, of course, we will continue to deliver Beat the Street games, so look out for the next one in your area."