The UK has the highest levels of obesity in western Europe. That means that one in four British adults are obese. About one quarter are inactive, failing to achieve a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity per week. 

Public Health England estimates that in the UK, physical inactivity directly contributes to one in six deaths every year.  

The rise in obesity rates has been blamed on rapidly changing modern lifestyles – driving instead of walking, poor diets, and desk-based jobs, to mention a few. We’re simply not moving enough.  

How can we build more physical activity into our busy lives?  

Including walking and cycling to daily routines is the most effective way to increase physical activity. This helps to reduce levels of obesity, as well as prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and improves mental health. Analysis from Transport for London estimates that if every Londoner walks or cycles for 20 minutes a day, the NHS would be saved £1.7 billion in treatment costs over the next 25 years. 

The transport sector is also responsible for over one-quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is a major contributor to air pollution. In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) estimated that ambient air pollution causes approximately 40,000 premature deaths, over six million sick days and an estimated total social cost of £22.6 billion per year. Moreover, motorised transport tends to benefit the most advantaged in society. Poorer areas are often located closer to main roads, with higher levels of air pollution, noise and road traffic accidents.  

It is difficult to argue against the benefits of active travel, but knowing that physical activity is good for us, doesn’t necessarily make all of us hop on a bike. So, what’s stopping us? 

Many cities are not designed to encourage walking and cycling, and we are often forced to rely on cars to get to where we want to go. Active travel investment currently represents only a tiny fraction of the £32 billion spent on transport annually. As of 2017, average UK-wide public spending on walking and cycling is £287mn per year (£4.30 per head), although the UK Government has pledged to increase this to £10 per capita. Cycle lanes, car-free days, the pedestrianisation of streets and cycle-to-work schemes all help to encourage more people to use active forms of transport, improving air quality, public health and wellbeing. 

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change has also worked towards the expansion of existing clean air zones, which help to cut down air pollution and have the potential to drive better urban planning to make it easier for people to walk and cycle. 

Everyone benefits from a shift to more active travel, but the key is to make it easier and safer for all of us to move more.  

 18 December 2018

By Viivi Erkkila, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change