The neglected miracle cure: walking

19 Jul 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 19 Jul 2019

Pic: Unsplash

There is one thing almost everyone can do, every day and at no cost, that would simultaneously improve their health, fitness, mental wellbeing and reduce pollution. Walking.

Yet statistics just published by the Department for Infrastructure tell us that its importance has yet to reach public consciousness. The latest Travel Survey suggests that we are collectively walking even less than we did back in 2015. The average person walks just 169 miles per annum, which works out at 0.49 miles per day.

The statistics cover journeys rather than general walking around at home and in offices, so the average is likely to be higher than that. However it is a long way short of the 10,000 steps generally recommended for good health (5 miles) or more recent research that suggests 7.5 miles as the yardstick.

Government therefore is failing to make headway on aspirations in its Programme for Government (PfG). Indicator 25 is the proportion of all journeys which are made by walking, cycling or public transport. This is monitored using Travel Survey for Northern Ireland data for single years.  In 2018, just under one quarter (24%) of all journeys were taken by walking, cycling or public transport – a slight fall on 2015.

First a quick look at the evidence regarding walking.

Of all exercises it is the easiest and safest, it costs nothing and does not require any special kit.

Mile for mile, brisk walking can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease as much as running. It takes longer to walk than run a mile but there is little to no risk of injury. It can also improve mood and reduce the  risk of depression.

For older people, walking increases general mobility and muscle strength in the lower body, reducing the risk of falls.

It can also improve symptoms of many long term conditions, including some forms of cancer, arthritis and diabetes.

It doesn’t end there. The more we get about by walking the less we use our cars. The less we use our cars the less we damage air quality. And poor air quality is a killer.

There is little to give comfort here in the report.

It does show a small drop in the percentage of journeys made by car: 633 car journeys were taken per person per year in 2016-2018.  This equates to 70% of all journeys made, a decrease from 72% in 2013-2015.

Many of these are undertaken by people driving alone who live near to public transport and/or are in walkable distance from their workplace.

And a large number are school runs, which account for around one quarter of all vehicles on the road at times they are made.

The survey revealed that:

·        In 2016-2018, the most commonly used main method of travel to or from school for the 4-11 age group was car or van (61%), followed by walking (23%) and then public transport (12%). 

·        The equivalent figures for the 12-18 age group was public transport (46%), followed by car or van (34%) and then walking (17%).

Even more disappointing is the decrease in the proportion of school journeys taken by walking, cycling or public transport by 4-11 year olds from 45% in 2013-2015 to 38% in 2016-2018.

This is a very significant change. We are going backwards.

There is mounting evidence of the damage that school run pollution does to young children. As a result, Unicef has mounted a UK-wide campaign to alert people to the especial vulnerability of children to pollution.  

It cites research showing that during early childhood, a critical time for physical and cognitive development, infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of harmful substances  on their growth. As children breathe faster than adults, they  take in more polluted air: an infant breathes in three times as much air as an adult, and a six year-old breathes in twice as much, relative to their weight.

Unicef concludes: “This is a fundamental threat to their right to grow up in a clean, healthy environment. It could leave them with lasting health problems, including stunted lung growth and an increased risk of asthma and pneumonia.”

Ironically some parents choose to drive their children to school because they think it is safer for them. However the report quotes a 2018 study which finds that children travelling to school by car in four UK cities were exposed to pollution levels twice as high as those who walked to school.

Belfast is especially at risk – it has amongst the worst air pollution levels in the UK

So what can be done?

Tackling the school run in urban areas would be a good start. And as so often with public policy initiatives it is Scotland that is taking the lead.

The City of Edinburgh Council was the first to make a move when it  banned parents from dropping their children off at five schools in 2015. This pilot has now been extended and followed by several cities in England. Sometimes these are accompanied by “park and stride” schemes where parents can park in  local pubs or churches and walk from there to school.

These kind of measures will not address the wider issue of pollution caused by vehicles, but it is a good start in terms of raising awareness both amongst children and their parents and it is being backed by related initiatives

One is run by the UK-wide charity Living Streets which runs a walk to school campaign, where children who walk from their homes every day for a week get a special badge.

They serve as reminders that tackling pollution is not just a task for politicians and law-makers, but also a challenge for all of us. And that by choosing to walk as often as we can we will not only be healthier and happier for it, we’ll also be making our own contribution to making the air we breathe cleaner and safer.

It should also serve to tell us that fitness is not the preserve of elite athletes, it need not involve physical pain or injury. It is within our grasp every day all we need is a pair of shoes and half an hour or so to spare.

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