“The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure’.” Liam Donaldson, Annual report of the Chief Medical Officer, 2009
The Lancet today published a series of reports on physical activity – or rather a series of reports on how physically inactive most of us are. Today also saw the publication of the Transport Select Committee’s report into road safety, an investigation that was triggered by the first increase in road deaths for a decade.
The publication of these reports on the same day may be a coincidence, but in highlighting the urgent need to both increase everyday physical activity and reduce the road danger that puts many people off walking and cycling, they rather neatly identify the need for an integrated approach to creating safe and attractive streets that encourage people to walk and cycle as part of their daily routine.
Over 60% of UK adults do not meet recommended minimum amounts of physical activity – at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity (e.g. brisk walking) five times a week. Few people have the time or inclination for regular visits to the gym; as Liam Donaldson, the then Chief Medical Officer, argued in 2004, “For most people, the easiest and most acceptable forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into everyday life.” That means incorporating physical activity into commutes, journeys to school, trips to the shops or visits to friends.
The benefits of increasing levels of physical activity are well documented, and we know what interventions are required – I helped the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence write their guidance on physical activity and the built environment way back in 2008. The evidence is there, and anyone in a position of power who tells you they need more of it to be persuaded is really admitting that they don’t have the gumption or the guts to challenge the car dependent status quo. To paraphrase Lewis Mumford – if society is paralysed today, it is not for lack of means, or lack of evidence, but for lack of purpose.
It’s time then to get serious about creating urban environments that make walking and cycling the natural choice for getting around our villages, towns and cities. It’s time to get serious about reclaiming our streets as social spaces rather than movement corridors. It’s time to get serious about reducing road danger through reductions in traffic volumes and speeds and building decent cycle lanes on streets that remain busy enough to require them. And it’s time to get serious about refusing planning permission for car dependent suburbs, business parks and out of town shopping.
The result won’t only be trimmer waistlines; it’ll be a more liveable environment that can be enjoyed by all – even the lazy.
For more on the relationship between obesity, physical activity and road danger I highly recommend The Energy Glut by Ian Roberts and Phil Edwards. Ian Roberts will be speaking at Movement for Liveable London’s Street Talks on 10th September.