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Active Transportation: The Road to Better Health

Active transportation (AT) refers to any form of human-powered transportation including cycling, walking, skateboarding or even using a wheel chair. One of the most notable outcomes of exercise gained through daily travel, as opposed to workouts in the home or local gym, is that participants are much more likely to continue to make walking, cycling or skateboarding part of their on-going lifestyles.

Mounting studies show conclusively that low levels of physical activity are associated with a host of lifestyle-related illnesses including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and many other serious conditions.

These low levels of physical activity, combined with poor nutrition, are contributing to an unprecedented health care crisis in Canada, the United States and other developed countries. According to a recent UBC study, between one-fourth and one-third of Canadians are obese, depending on the region. A startling two-thirds of the population is either overweight or obese. Statistics Canada reported recently that about three in 10 children are overweight or obese and have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels and thickening heart muscles. The shocking news: if they remain obese into adulthood they are a 40 percent increased risk of stroke or developing heart disease.

The good news is that there is a straightforward and inexpensive fix (relative to the health care and other costs associated with inactivity) to this growing health care crisis design and engineer more activity into our communities by supporting and investing in active transportation. Communities which wean themselves off car travel in favour of active transportation are healthier and more productive. Even transit users gain more benefit from active transportation as the majority tend to walk or bicycle to connect with local transit.

Individuals who begin to use active transportation enjoy almost immediate benefits in the form of improved heart rate, lung function and general metabolic health. People who walk or bike regularly are also a reduced risk of being obese, as these forms of transport improve energy balance and body composition. One US study, for example, found that men who walk or cycle to work are half as likely to be obese.

The daily exercise associated with active transportation, studies show, also contributes to improved mental health. One study, for example demonstrated that walking in particular can reduce anxiety in older women and even in those who are without any specific disorder. In fact, there is mounting evidence that increasing physical activity improves self-esteem, mood, stress levels and perceptions of happiness and satisfaction.

The long-term benefits from physical activity associated with active transportation are particularly compelling. A meta-study of 80 cohort studies demonstrated that people who engage in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week have a 14 percent reduction in mortality, while those who engage in 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity experienced a 26 percent reduction in mortality. Great news for those who incorporate walking and cycling into their daily routines.

The reluctance of policy makers to invest in active transportation in the form of higher quality bicycle facilities and pedestrian routes is the typically attributed to the modest costs associated with these investments. While monies are readily found for upgrading or building new road infrastructure, for example the recent $11-12 million upgrade to Bowen Road, policy makers in provincial, regional and local government fail, it seems, to see the obvious benefits associated with investment in active transportation.

One Canadian study, for example, calculated that physical inactivity alone is directly associated with $1.6 billion in annual health care costs or 1.5 percent of all Canadian health care expenditures. A recent BC government study estimated that obesity alone costs the province between $1 billion to $3 billion per year, a cost which could be significantly offset by investing in AT.

The overall cost savings accruing from investment in active transportation is not limited to lower medical costs, however. Other benefits include reduced work absenteeism, air and noise pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic accident rates topics which GNCC will explore in upcoming issues of our newsletter SpokeLore.