A major new report from NICE, the NHS health body, recommends more active travel to increase public health.

Shun the car for short journeys, cycle instead, urges health guidance

Walking and cycling should become the norm for short journeys and should be encouraged throughout local communities says NICE, in new guidance published today.

Local authorities, schools and workplaces should introduce ways to enable their communities to be more physically active and change their behaviours.

Dr Harry Rutter, Chair of the Programme Development Group and Strategic and Scientific Advisor to the National Obesity Observatory said: “We face a wide range of problems in England’s towns and cities; most people do not get enough physical activity, our roads are congested and polluted, and we need to reduce our carbon emissions. This guidance addresses ways to increase walking and cycling for transport and recreation. If implemented, it has the potential to improve the quality of life for large numbers of people, now and in the future.”

Philip Insall, Director of Health for Sustrans said: “Inactive lifestyles are now causing as many early deaths as smoking – if a virus was this deadly it would fill the front pages and dominate debates in parliament.

“Walking and cycling are among the easiest ways to get active but many people are understandably put off by traffic, safety fears and lack of experience.

“It is now critical to make our roads safer and help everyone to feel confident on a bike or on foot. We need government and local authorities to implement these recommendations immediately to improve people’s lives now and save the NHS billions in the long run.”

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%, and is also important for good mental health.

At present, we are not active enough as a nation – around two-thirds (61%) of men and nearly three-quarters (71%) of women aged 16 and over are not physically active enough. 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. Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality (accounting for 6% of deaths globally).

This is the first time that NICE has published guidance for organisations and institutions, such as schools, workplaces and local authorities that have a responsibility or influence over local communities, to encourage them to promote physical activity specifically through walking and cycling. NICE recommends coordinated action to identify and address the barriers that may be discouraging people from walking and cycling more often or at all. These include:

Implement 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.

Ensure 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.

Develop and implement 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.

Ensure 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).

The guidance emphasises that encouraging and enabling people to walk or cycle requires action on many fronts, and from a range of different sectors. An integrated approach is needed to achieve the potential public health benefits.

Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the Centre for Public Health Excellence at NICE said: “As a nation, we are not physically active enough and this can contribute to a wide range of health problems. It is important that there is comprehensive, evidence-based guidance in place that can help address these issues. We want to encourage and enable people to walk and cycle more and weave these forms of travel into everyday life. This guidance is aimed at making it easier for people to do this, as well as explaining the benefits and helping to address some of the safety fears that some people may have.”

Local Transport Minister Norman Baker said: “I welcome NICE’s guidance on walking and cycling and its recognition that encouraging more people to travel actively is a great way to improve public health. From April, the responsibility for public health [in England] will return to local authorities and we want transport, planning and health professionals to work together to help people change the way they travel.

“We want to see more people walking and cycling and this new guidance will play a valuable role in making sure that the funding we are providing translates into local measures that help more people to get more active.”

Professor Nanette Mutrie, PDG member and Chair of Physical Activity for Health at the University of Edinburgh said: “We are currently facing a glut of physical inactivity in England, so this guidance is very timely. It provides practical recommendations on incorporating walking and cycling into people’s lives. The guidance focuses on a range of options that can collectively make it easier for people to travel by foot or by bike.”

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