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Cycling and walking 'key to better health'

New guidance from the health regulator says changing transport habits could boost our health
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
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28th November 2012 - Walking and cycling should be encouraged and become the usual methods of transport around local communities, say experts.

The health regulator, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), says that local authorities, schools and workplaces should find ways of ensuring that people get more active as they go about their daily lives as an effective way to protect their health.

Protecting against disease

Regular physical activity is crucial to achieving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It can help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes by up to 50%, according to research. It can also maintain good mental health.

The problem is that we are not active enough as a nation. For instance, around two-thirds (61%) of men and nearly three-quarters (71%) of women aged 16 and over are not physically active enough. Also, only just over half of boys aged two to 10 years old and a third of girls in the same age group achieve the recommended level of daily physical activity.

"We see the need for an injection of alternative ways of promoting physical activity across the UK," says Professor Nanette Mutrie, chair of physical activity for health at the University of Edinburgh, who contributed to the assessment. "It's quite recent that people have understood how important inactivity is for health," she adds. "Inactivity is the fourth leading cause of premature death across the world."

She tells BootsWebMD: "Walking and cycling remains perhaps the most practical way of putting activity into everyday life for people."

Focus on local health initiatives

This is the first time that NICE has published guidelines about how institutions and schools can be responsible for helping people in local communities to become more physically active.

Professor Mutrie says that in England, the new Health and Wellbeing Board presents an opportunity to focus health protection measures at a local level. "It's no longer just the responsibility of the health services but the responsibility of transport, education and potentially of the police, and the guidance that NICE has issued is seeking that high level coordination so that it doesn't just fall through the cracks of everyone's job - and then no one is doing it."

Planning strategies

The new NICE guidelines recommend that there should be coordinated action to help identify and overcome the barriers that prevent people from walking and cycling more and seeing it as their preferred method of getting out and about.

These include:

  • Implementing town-wide programmes to promote cycling for both transport and recreational purposes. These could include cycle hire schemes, car-free events or days, providing information such as maps and route signing, activities and campaigns that emphasise the benefits of cycling, fun rides, and others
  • Ensuring that walking routes are integrated with accessible public transport links to support longer journeys. Signage should give details of the distance and/or walking time, in both directions, between public transport facilities and key destinations
  • Developing and implementing school travel plans that encourage children to walk or cycle all or part of the way to school, including children with limited mobility. Pupils should be involved in the development and implementation of these plans
  • Making sure that walking and cycling are considered alongside other interventions, when working to achieve specific health outcomes in relation to the local population (such as a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes, or the promotion of mental wellbeing)

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