Going viral with key SEM messages

Undergraduate perspective on Sport & Exercise Medicine – a BJSM blog series

By Jonathan Shurlock (@J_Shurlock)

Image: http://marketbusinessonline.com/profitable-viral-internet-marketing-tips-for-businesses/

This blog looks at ‘viral’ spread. No, not the relationship between viral infections and athletes that have been explored previously, 1,2 but rather viral SEM messages in social media. The term ‘viral media’ was first used by Douglas Rushkoff to describe the mass circulation of content amongst the population. The term is spreading fast, with every day seeming to bring a new ‘viral video’ to our attention on every available social media platform.

We do not need to revisit the statistics in great detail here, even a cursory search shows an increase in our time spent online, and that an ever larger portion of this time is devoted to social media. In addition, there is much debate regarding the human attention span, and whether it is indeed shrinking in part due to rapid exposure to sound bites and memes generated by social media.

Looking at videos specifically, where else to look but YouTube. At the time of writing the 3 most viewed videos on YouTube have 2.882, 2.860 and 2.608 billion views respectively. Inevitably, these include a video from the pop star that everyone hates to love, Justin Bieber. Searching for ‘Sport and Exercise Medicine’ brings up around 1,610,000 hits. The 3 videos with the most views have 25,000 – 60,000 views. While not quite reaching a view count of over a third of the world population, the target audience is admittedly smaller. Expanding our search slightly further, we come across a few videos relevant to the world of SEM which have managed to have an even greater impact:

In an entertaining TEDx talk, Charles Eugster explores the topic of increasing obesity in a video titled: ‘Why bodybuilding at age 93 is a great idea’. Charles identifies the increasing problems seen as a result of increased levels of physical inactivity. Have a watch and see what you think of his reflections:

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We couldn’t talk about SEM videos without a mention of Dr Mike Evans incredible 23 and ½ hours’ video; which has seen a surge in views of late (apparently due to a feature in the Netflix show ‘Orange is the New Black’). Currently sat at over 5.3 million views, Dr Evans’ video seems to encapsulate all the aspects of a successful video with significant impact. Relatively short at just over 9 minutes, long enough to be worth watching, but short enough to maintain our apparently waning attention spans.  Dr Evans explores a vital topic of sedentary behaviour with some engaging animation. The 23 and ½ hours video has been explored before on the BJSM blog here and here, so lets refresh your memory:

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Dr Evans has plenty of other equally informative videos that are well worth a watch, and can be found HERE.

We know that brief interventions can be beneficial and cost effective4, so is there a place for videos such as these to be used as tools in our everyday clinical practice?

Anecdotally I often hear ‘my patient is too unwell to exercise’ as a reason for not discussing physical activity in the inpatient setting. Obviously there are limitations on the role of physical activity in the setting of acute illness, but the reality remains that physical activity is simply not a priority topic for many practicing clinicians.

As Professor Dame Sally Davies announces her plan to utilise genomics in order to continue to shape cancer treatment and personalise medicine, are we not missing an opportunity to be discussing the fact that physical activity is associated with a 20% RISK REDUCTION IN BOWEL CANCER5 or how about a 14% RISK REDUCTION IN BREAST CANCER?5 While genomics and personalised cancer treatment have their important roles in effective healthcare provision, are we at risk of overlooking the importance of physical activity in the pursuit of ever more complex and (at times) expensive treatments?

Once again, we revisit the importance of physical activity and the difficulty with encouraging those with sedentary lifestyles to engage with it. What insights do these videos give us into successful attempts to capture the interest of the general population with these important health messages? Is it all in the design or does the message matter the most? Thoughts welcome!


  1. Roberts JA, Wilson JA, Clements GB Virus infections and sports performance a prospective study. British Journal of Sports Medicine 1988;22:161-162.
  2. De Araujo, Maíta Poli et al. “Prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Female Athletes in São Paulo, Brazil.” Einstein1 (2014): 31–35.
  3. Jenkins, Henry; Ford, Sam; Green, Joshua (2013). Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press.
  4. GC V, Wilson EC, Suhrcke M, et al. Are brief interventions to increase physical activity cost-effective? A systematic review. Br J Sports Med Published Online First: 05 October 2015.
  5. Kyu H, Bachman V, Alexander L, Mumford John, Afshin A, et al. Physical activity and risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke events: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 BMJ 2016; 354


Jonathan Shurlock is an academic foundation year 1 doctor based in Sheffield. He coordinates the BJSM Undergraduate Perspective blog series.

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