[This article has been originally published in Catalan in 'Espai Salut' newsletter of Diputació de Barcelona]
A silent pandemic is slowly spreading. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one of four adults in the world – and more than 80% of adolescents – does not exert enough physical activity. We are moving less and less every day, and this has a very negative impact on our health. To the point that sedentarism has become one of the main risk factors for mortality worldwide. Available data indicate that sedentarism is associated with 6% of heart disease, 7% of type 2 diabetes and 9% of premature mortality cases.
To fight this global problem, the WHO offers a series of recommendations that, for adults up to 64 years of age, comes down to doing 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Moderate physical activity does not mean exercising, but includes daily activities that involve energy expense such as non-sedentary jobs, household chores, or playing and walking. Therefore, keeping physically active does not necessarily mean going to the gym. There is a simple, accessible and affordable way to incorporate physical activity into our daily routine and meet the WHO recommendations: practice active transport.
There is a simple, accessible and affordable way to incorporate physical activity into our daily routine and meet the WHO recommendations: practice active transport
The most common modes of active transport are walking and cycling. We can reach the daily-recommended minutes of exercise simply by doing our daily trips by foot or bicycle. People that need to cover longer distances can combine active transport with public transport, since the latter rarely takes us from door to door. The simple fact of leaving our car or motorcycle parked and moving by these alternative transport modes guarantees a myriad of health benefits.
The positive health effects of physical activity are many and include a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancer, and osteoporosis. A study performed in Canada by Warburton and colleagues in 2010 showed a 31% reduction in all-cause mortality among people that exercised more as compared those that exercised less. In addition, it has been observed that physically active people sleep better, are in better shape, and function better. And, needless to say, an increase in physical activity reduces the risk of overweight.
Moreover, physical activity also has positive effects on mental health. Scientific evidence shows that an increase in moderate and vigorous physical activity is associated with a reduction in stress and depression, as well as better sleeping conditions. Physical activity also improves cognitive performance, even if briefly, as well as school performance, memory, and mental processing speed.
Encouraging physical activity through urban planning
The benefits of physical activity and the risks of sedentarism are well documented. There is also a well-identified solution: active transport combined with public transport when necessary. However, choosing active transportation is not only a personal decision. How cities are designed and the efficiency of their transport network are key in favouring or hampering active transport, and thereby, the levels of physical activity.
There is scientific consensus that people living in “walkable” environments are more prone to active transport and have higher levels of physical activity. Opting for a compact urbanisation that prioritises the needs of pedestrians is much better for promoting physical activity than environments that prioritise motor vehicles.
There is scientific consensus that people living in “walkable” environments are more prone to active transport and have higher levels of physical activity
Another factor that greatly contributes to physical activity is vicinity to public transport. People living in areas where they can choose between walking, cycling or taking public transport, instead of driving, have higher levels of travel-derived physical activity.
Therefore, fighting sedentarism is not only an individual issue. Competent authorities can help increase the levels of physical activity within the population by designing people-friendly cities that encourage walking, cycling or public transportation. Cities where it is pleasant to walk on the streets and where individual car use becomes a nuisance instead of a necessity.