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Providing solutions to the challenges of obesity and inactivity

By Dr Andy Cope,
people walking and cycling

Active travel helps address the challenges of obesity and inactivity

people walking and cycling

Safe routes help promote walking and cycling for transport

New research is exploring the relationship between cycling and walking infrastructure and mode shift in more detail.

Building on previous research

In our earlier Fit for Life report, we set some research findings on the public health and physical activity impacts of walking and cycling routes, alongside looking at some of the practical delivery examples and learning from Connect2.

Connect2 is a programme of engineering projects aimed to make local walking and cycling journeys easier by constructing or improving routes at sites around the UK. We worked with colleagues at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at the University of Cambridge to compile the report. You can also read a summary in our earlier blog post.

We now have new research from the iConnect project which was a collaboration of researchers from CEDAR and others across the UK, which further emphasises the importance of supportive environments for walking and cycling.

Obesity levels in England are high

This new research offers further evidence of the potential for walking and cycling to provide a solution to the obesity and inactivity problem in England, particularly in the context of figures released by the NHS:

  • In 2015, 58% of women and 68% of men were overweight or obese.
  • In 2014, only 52% of 15 year-olds reported they consumed 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • In 2015/16, 26 % of adults were classified as inactive (fewer than 30 minutes physical activity a week).

The impact of environmental changes on physical activity levels

The first of the new research papers titled "Can environmental improvement change the population distribution of walking?" is from the iConnect project and presents evidence from research into the impacts of the Connect2 schemes. It explores changes in walking and identifies groups who changed their walking behaviour in similar ways.

The research found that environmental improvement encouraged the less active to take up walking for transport, as well as encouraging those who were already active to walk more.

Those with lower levels of education and lower incomes were more likely to show both short-lived and sustained increases in walking for transport. Proximity to the intervention was associated with both uptake of and short-lived increases in walking for transport.

Evaluating the modal shift stimulated by improving infrastructure for walking and cycling

The second of the new papers titled "New walking and cycling infrastructure and modal shift in the UK: A quasi-experimental panel study" examines the effectiveness of safe routes in promoting walking and cycling for transport.

Actual usage of the infrastructure was statistically significantly associated with modal shift. This suggests that while infrastructure provision may not be a sufficient condition to achieve modal shift, it may well be a necessary condition in that the people who shifted towards more active travel tended to be those who were using the new infrastructure.

The findings of this study support the construction of walking and cycling routes, but also suggest that such infrastructure alone may not be enough to promote active travel.

Learning from the Connect 2 programme

These findings align with the findings of the papers showcased in the Fit for Life report:

  1. Safe routes that overcome barriers do increase cycling and walking, and enable people to become more physically active overall.
  2. The build-up of usage and impact can grow markedly over time.
  3. Recreational walking in particular, is a good conduit for increasing levels of physical activity.
  4. Interventions should focus on enhancing the perceived supportiveness of the environment for local travel.
  5. Profound changes to the environment may impact more strongly.
  6. These principles are transferable and scalable.

The work of Sustrans and iConnect on Connect2, and on the wider National Cycle Network, helps to make the case for environmental interventions that support and promote walking and cycling.

Crucially, the learning being assembled through the delivery of safe walking and cycling routes and the research into their impacts underpins Sustrans’ new strategy – due for release later this month.

We are resolved to work more in joining up work with individuals, communities and environments to achieve best effect. We think this approach represents public health’s best option in addressing the challenges of obesity and inactivity.

With thanks to our friends at iConnect and CEDAR.