The vision of the newly published Scotland’s Physical Activity Delivery Plan is for a Scotland where more people are more active, more often. And it’s clear to see why. Participation in physical activity is stagnating and sedentary behaviour increasing, and it’s having a significant impact on health. Physical inactivity is associated with an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and obesity. It’s estimated that the cost of this ill health to Scotland, resulting largely from low levels of physical activity, is £94.1 million, which equates to £18 per person per year, and contributes to nearly 2,500 deaths in Scotland each year. Physical inactivity is clearly a public health crisis.
So, how can we address this? Activities such as going to the gym or participating in a sporting activity are not for everyone, with many people often claiming that they struggle to find the time. Yet, one thing that most us do on a daily basis is travel and use transport, for our journeys to work or education and for everyday activities, and it is here that there is a real opportunity to curb the decline in physical activity. Incorporating physical activity into these journeys, through active travel modes like cycling, is a convenient and effective way to increase levels of physical activity.
Commitments in the Delivery Plan to putting active travel at the heart of transport planning, developing physical confidence and competence from a young age, addressing inequality, and building infrastructure are all welcome, and will help increase physical activity. The doubling of funding for active travel in the Programme for Government is significant and demonstrates a high level of political commitment to active travel, and provides a comprehensive mechanism to meet the aims of many, if not all, of the outcomes in the Delivery Plan.
As a nation, our continued love affair with the car means that a large proportion of the journeys we make are sedentary, with the majority of these sedentary journeys under 5km. It’s these short, sedentary, everyday journeys that offer the greatest possibility to switch to more active modes, particularly cycling. Making this change will have a profound public health improvement impact, both physically and mentally, helping to alleviate growing pressure on the NHS. People who cycle for their commute have a significantly lower risk of a range of diseases including cancer, heart attack, and stroke, and also arrive at work much less stressed than those who travelled by car. Not only does this have a positive impact on the individual but also on their employer– people who cycle to work are on average 1.3 days less absent due to being unwell every year than those who don’t.
Despite this powerful evidence, only 5% of people report usually or regularly cycling to work, with not having access to a bike, too many cars on the road, and traffic travelling too fast among the most frequently reported reasons for this. To overcome these barriers, we need a combination of infrastructure improvements, including access to bikes, and behaviour change, supported by initiatives such as Cycle Friendly Employer which help create environments that are more cycle-friendly.
Inequality is a major issue for society and is identified in the Delivery Plan as a key area of action to promote inclusive growth, and to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in physical activity. Yet, as the Plan itself identifies, adults living in the most deprived areas are much less likely to meet physical activity guidelines, and therefore more likely to suffer from the disease burden associated with physical inactivity.
The present transport system, which prioritises cars and road developments, places an unequal burden on those in these most deprived communities, and exacerbates these inequalities by forcing car use on low income households who can find themselves without any viable means of travelling around their local area and to their place of work. The M74 extension in Glasgow is a good example of this. The area directly impacted by the works was a deprived area, and despite claims that the new motorway would increase rates of active travel, due to displacement of traffic from nearby roads onto the motorway, rates of active travel decreased, and the number of new car journeys increased, further exacerbating already present inequalities. It also negatively impacted on the mental wellbeing of those closest to it.
Cycling, as an active mode, helps to improve levels of physical activity and helps to improve accessibility and connectivity to employment, greenspace and social interaction, improving both physical and mental health and wellbeing, and addressing inequality.
Active travel offers a real opportunity to increase levels of physical activity across Scotland, and overcome the negative consequences sedentary behaviour creates. The WHO Global Action Plan is referenced in the Delivery Plan, and through active travel, Scotland can truly think global and closely align to the goals of the WHO Plan. It can help create active societies through changing social norms and attitudes; build active environments through re-designing places and spaces; help encourage active people through programmes and opportunities; and create active systems through governance and policy enablers. Through active travel, Scotland can make a profound impact on our long-term relationship with physical activity. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to change social norms and attitudes towards cycling and active travel, and overcome our love affair with the car. This can be achieved through creating environments and opportunities where anyone anywhere can cycle safely and easily.
The Delivery Plan, as part of a wider policy framework focused on active travel, is a positive step towards addressing the public health crisis of physical inactivity.
About the author:
Jennifer Fingland is Policy Officer at Cycling Scotland.
Cycling Scotland is the nation’s cycling organisation. Working with others, we help create and deliver opportunities and an environment so anyone anywhere in Scotland can cycle easily and safely. We work to establish cycling as an acceptable, attractive and practical lifestyle option with a vision of a sustainable, inclusive and healthy Scotland where anyone, anywhere can enjoy all the benefits of cycling.
We support and work to achieve the Scottish Government’s Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CAPS) vision of 10% of everyday journeys to be cycle journeys by 2020.
Cycling Scotland is a registered charity (SC029760).