New guidance from public health body the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which develops clinical guidelines for the NHS, puts cycling and walking at the centre of efforts to improve the nation’s health, saying they “should become the norm for short journeys and should be encouraged throughout local communities.”
The guidance, published today, outlines the role physical activity can play in improving health and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, with NICE saying that “local authorities, schools and workplaces should introduce ways to enable their communities to be more physically active and change their behaviours.”
According to NICE, the benefits of regular physical exercise include cutting the risk of conditions including stroke, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease by as much as 50 per cent.
However, nearly two thirds of men (61 per cent) and almost three quarters of women (71 per cent) aged 16+ do not get enough exercise.
It’s a similar picture among children, where only half of boys and one third of girls aged 2 to 10 years meeting recommended daily level of physical activity.
That lack of physical exercise is leading to an obesity epidemic which NICE likens the threat to that posed by smoking, which in turn will lead to a deterioration in the nation’s health as well as placing further strain on healthcare resources.
NICE has called for “coordinated action to identify and address the barriers that may be discouraging people from walking and cycling more often or at all,” including:
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).
Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the Centre for Public Health Excellence at NICE commented: “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.”
Philip Insall, Director of Health for Sustrans added: “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.”
At a press launch ahead of the publication of its guidance today, the report's author, Dr Harry Rutter, was asked whether NICE, in encouraging people to cycle, had taken account of the danger of riding a bike, reports the Guardian.
That perceived risk is the single biggest deterrent to getting people to ride bikes.
In his response, he pointed out that remaining inactive was far more dangerous to people’s health.
“All activities carry a risk,” Dr Rutter explained. “For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling.
“Clearly, when deaths to takes place that's tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.
“This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it's given.
“What we don't notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there's a cost to that sedentary time. It's silent, it doesn't get noticed.
“What we're talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.”
Not all press coverage has been as positive as the Guardian's. Instead of addressing the potential benefits for the nation's health, the Daily Mail focused instead on just one paragraph of the 126-page report which suggested that restricted parking or higher car parking charges might be one way of enocuraging more people to walk or cycle.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.