The Power of Active Soles to Change the World

Active SolesAdapted from my talk at TEDx Oldham, 19 July 2019.

We are all designed to move. We were born moving.

But our modern world is designed and organised to keep us sitting still…. In our cars, at our desks, on our sofas and glued to our phones.

Inactivity is killing us. And in the meantime, it’s making us sick and unhappy.

Our obsession with the car and the lack of viable alternatives, is choking us and our communities.

This is not right….

But the good news is; all of this is within our power to change.

How many of these emotions have you experienced in the past few days and weeks?

emotions HB

It’s more common than we realise.

And how many of these things have you used to make you feel better?

Crutches HB

Me too. More often than I’d  care to admit.

But what if I told you that there is a proven way to help you feel better, today and every day? Something that will help with most things you go to your GP with. It will reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, arthritis, mental illness and other long term conditions. If you are living with one of these conditions, it will help you to live better.

This thing will improve your kids’ confidence and wellbeing. And their grades at school. It’ll boost your productivity at work, and even your earning power.

If we all did more of this thing, we could reduce air pollution, and congestion and tackle climate change. More people would be out and about where they live.. communities would be stronger and fewer people would feel lonely.

How incredible would that be?

This amazing thing is available to the vast majority of people and I am grateful to have discovered it years ago. I just wish everyone could find their way to it. That’s why I’m writing this. To share my passion and what I know with you, in the hope that you will find it, and share it with others…

This magic solution.. this wonder drug is simple.

Human Movement.

How do I know it works? Because I live with all those emotions too. We are all human. I am a full time working mum, with three daughters. I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend and a colleague. I too have bumps in the road on my journey through life.

But I know, putting on my trainers, going for a walk or a run, helps me to deal with tough days and stressful times. It helps me to feel better. Without fail. Happier and stronger, mentally and physically. And more energised. It has helped to build my family, my friendships and my community. These days it even reduces my carbon footprint.

This is ‘Big Stone’. It has become my place to go. I can see this hill from my kitchen window. It draws me out.

Big Stone : Credit Hannah Bird

I’m really lucky. I have found friends that also know the power of this place. We have a message group, and every day someone will post on there, looking for someone to go with.

Over the years, on our walks and runs, we’ve shared our best times and our worst times. We have laughed and celebrated. We have listened, supported and cried.

Don’t get me wrong. Most days we are literally dragging ourselves out of the door, away from demands and commitments, at home and at work. But by the time we reach Big Stone, we feel like this.


Big Stone Relax

Or this.


Big Stone 8

Always Happier.

Now not everyone lives near a ‘Big Stone’. But that’s not what matters. Because even walking in town, between appointments at work, I can find the same wellbeing. Especially if I find the parks, canals and public squares along the way.

Canal Walk

The evidence is clear. Brisk walking is good enough for most people. Moving in any way will make a difference. You don’t need to run a marathon. You are never old to start, and moving more will help with the vast majority of health conditions. When we shift from doing nothing, to doing something regularly, we gain the biggest health benefits of all.

And we can all do something, can’t we?

So bring to mind a place near your home, or near your work. That you could walk to. To feel more relaxed, energised and happier.

I hope that this is motivating you to want to move more. That would be brilliant.

But that alone isn’t going to change the world. Moving has been designed out of life. It needs to be designed back in. And that will take more than a few of us changing our lifestyles and making different choices.

Imagine  that together we could improve the health and happiness of a whole town.. the whole of Greater Manchester…the nation… the world!

There are thousands of influences on our daily activity levels. You’ll recognise some of them on here.

We need to redesign places, policy, systems, practice and change culture. We need to enable moving, to get a whole population active. And I mean a whole population. Accessible and inclusive design and change for all.

whole system

Changing some of these things clearly takes longer than others. But it is all possible. And if we start today, small, simple things can make a big difference.

Here’s one story that shows just how powerful culture can be. And how changing it can impact, at no cost. Just by changing the conversation.

Because conversations do change the world.

Two years ago I started a new job in the city. I was able to get the train to work for the first time in my career. I could ditch the car. Brilliant.

A few weeks in, I realised that walking to the station was more appealing in my trainers than in my ‘work shoes’. But then when I got to work, I felt I had to change back. Working all over Greater Manchester, I was constantly carrying spare shoes around with me.

A colleague, Rachel Allen and I, decided to rebel.

We started to leave our trainers on. At our desks, in meetings and even in the big board rooms. It was really interesting. People became curious. It started a conversation. It turns out that shoes really matter to some people! And what do you do when something really matters to you these days? You write a blog.

Rachel wrote a blog about enclothed cognition– she knew about a psychology concept that proves what we wear changes the way we think, and can change our behaviour. So she had proof. Wearing flat shoes and trainers at work made it more likely that we would walk.

For women and men, there are cultural norms and rules at work . Even the Queen and Michelle Obama shared their frustration that they are expected to wear uncomfortable high heels in public life.

Then there are own attitudes and worries. Am I smart enough? Do I feel professional enough? Will people take me seriously? All these things went through my head.

But I became braver. Hosting the GM Moving Conference, I wore high heels. But I took my trainers with me for the lunchtime walk. Then I thought..why should I change back into my high heels, just because I was presenting on stage? So I kept them on, with my dress. I still felt the need to explain myself… but at the next conference I spoke at in London, I didn’t even take my ‘work shoes’ with me.

Conference Active Soles

It was becoming normal. And the conversation continued…

A colleague in the office showed Rachel’s blog to the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham. It made him think too. Why don’t we give explicit permission to our employees to wear shoes that they are more likely to move in?

So he did. And this really matters. Because the senior leaders need to enable health and wellbeing for their staff. And set the example. It was now policy across public services in Greater Manchester.

You can wear trainers to work,as long as you use them“.


We debated a hash tag to hang this on. #ActiveSoles won. It connected with the Greater Manchester Northern Soul identity and spoke of people (souls) aswell as footwear (soles).

It gave us an easy way to invite people to join in and spread the word. Active soles gradually became ‘a thing’. It was public and easy to follow. Everyone is embraced, and encouraged to invite others to join in too.

We made a presentation to the Health and Care Board. Our Chair, Steven Pleasant, sent out an invitation for all members to come in their active soles. This is a big meeting, full of political leaders and chief executives. But people wore them. It was brilliant to see. We were announcing an investment from Sport England. The team spelt out the £10m in trainers.

Health and Care Board Active Soles.jpg

Our #activesoles movement continued to grow….

Now, there are always people who take more time to join in. Patience is important in movement building. But then there are key moments of change.

Take Warren, for example. A Director in health services. He is well known for his smart suit, tie, tie pin and brogues.

 As the movement grew, he was really supportive. But he made it really clear. He would never be joining in. He maintained that he just didn’t feel like his professional self without his brogues. But we sensed that if we could convince Warren, he would be a key influencer for others, and a catalyst for change.

So, as his special birthday approached, we decided to buy him some smart trainers, and asked him to join in. He received the gift with good grace, and smiled at the brogue detail. He even went so far as to say he would wear them to work.

Then, on 1 May; Warren tweeted:

Warren Tweet

That’s a Bob Dylan reference, in case you’re too young to recognise it.

At our conference, two days later, all delegates had been invited to wear trainers and refresh with a walk at lunchtime. We encouraged them to share pictures and invite others to join in. It was amazing. Even the keynote speakers were wearing trainers, including Andy Burnham, the Chief Executive of Sport England, Tim Hollingsworth, and Warren (with his tie pin).

Since then the movement has continued to grow. GM Moving is regularly tagged in social media posts, and people check in with us when they see us, as they enjoy wearing their active soles and moving more. We have had politicians, surgeons, teachers, nurses and all kinds of people. All doing their great work in their trainers.

It’s not all plain sailing though. One of our mayors, Laura Booth, was criticized for her trainers.

Laura Booth

The quick, supportive and outraged response from people gave her a clear message that she was considered to be a role model.. with over 6000 clicks of support.

Jon Rouse Tweet

Flat, comfortable shoes or trainers enable us to move more.. and moving more has a positive impact on our work. We can all do great work in our active soles .

So what. People are wearing trainers to work. What difference does it really make? People are moving more thanks to their footwear. They are feeling better.

Warren, for example, is walking on average 2km more per day. Some have ditched their cars for public transport and active travel. People feel energised at work. They feel happier.


At my duaghters’ school, uniform is jeans, hoodie and trainers. I’ve seen first hand how this enables more active school days (and saves us money as we don’t have to buy multiple pairs of school shoes).

There is bags of evidence that active people are more productive. Active people are less likely to have time off work for ill health. There is a significant financial benefit for employers.

We want everyone to join in this revolution.

So what if… instead of reaching for the biscuit tin or the wine, when we feel low, we reached for our trainers instead?

What if, we all got moving. For 30 minutes a day. 60 minutes for our kids. It doesn’t even need to be in one go. You can break it down. Ten minutes at a time. Heart beating faster. Getting stronger. It all counts.

What if we could ditch the car and combined walking, with public transport?What if we designed movement back into daily life and culture?

The benefits would be massive. All of these things, and much more. How amazing would that be?


Your Active Soles are just one way to move more. You can find your own way.

And when you’re living an active life, and feeling the benefit. Tell others how great you feel. Invite them to move more too. Start your own conversation and watch the ripple effect. Because conversations that change culture, change the world.

Do small things that make a big difference.

And this is important.

If you can do big things.. because you’re an employer, a politician, a headteacher.. any kind of leader…. ask yourself with every decision and policy you make… does this enable people to move more?

And if it doesn’t. Change it so that it does.

Let’s start an Active Soles Revolution.

We can redesign moving back into life. Why not start right now?

Join the #activesoles movement and spread the word.

Below are just a few of the stories of those who have already joined in. I’ll keep this collage growing.

My sincere thanks to all those who allowed me to share their stories at @TEDxOldham on 19 July 2019. To those who helped to craft the talk and those who listened to rehearsals. To those who kindly allowed me to draw on their experiences, wisdom, data and stories with a shared passion for a healthier, happier world. 

Most of all, thankyou to family, friends and colleagues who supported me to apply, prepare and enjoy a wonderful day, organised by the most brilliant group of volunteers, led by Andy Hall and Paul Sweeting. Made some new friends, and met great people to do great work with, in our active soles! And evidence if it was ever needed, then when things feel difficult, uncomfortable and scary… you should go there. It’s where the magic happens. 

Thanks to my good friends Hannah, Nikki and Meg for allowing me to use their lovely photos of Big Stone. More talented photographers than me. Two for Joy   Bird Art

For more information on GM Moving, click here. If you want to share your ideas, or talk to us about how to enable people to move more in Greater Manchester; in your school, workplace or community, email and we will connect you to the right people to help.

If you’re interested in the evidence, I’ll start collecting it here:



6 thoughts on “The Power of Active Soles to Change the World

  1. One of the most inspiring read in ages, thank you. I am definately getting on board and sharing this.
    Thank you…


  2. I disagree very much with gaming being seen as a negative way to relax, especially as it is in there twice. What is negative about problem solving, role play and narrative experiences. In addition most of my gaming is online with my real life friends, a virtual get together and social time. Classic older person dismissing things they don’t personally enjoy.


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