Britian's top doctor says walking and cycling could be the answer to the worst effects of the UK’s growing health gap that leaves the poor suffering from more illnesses and dying younger.
Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has written an introduction to an evidence review by sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, and said transport infrastructure can encourage people to combine physical activity with their everyday journeys.
Active travel and health inequalities draws together a variety of research, which consistently shows that people from deprived areas have worse health.
From 2004 to 2006, heart disease deaths in England’s most deprived areas were 71% higher than in the wealthiest communities. Men and women living in the most deprived areas of Scotland have a life expectancy ten years lower than the average. And the poorest Welsh communities have obesity levels one and a half times greater than affluent areas.
Sir Liam said: “Some of the most disadvantaged groups in society are also the most sedentary, and the incidence of obesity, diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and mental health problems is higher among people in these groups.
“Active travel - walking and cycling - is an accessible and cost-effective way of incorporating physical activity into everyday lives, such as during the journey to work, shops, visiting family and friends, or the school run. Active travel can play an important role in helping individuals to achieve the recommended levels of physical activity.
“Making walking and cycling accessible by improving local infrastructure has the potential to enable those in disadvantaged communities to lead healthier lifestyles and reduce health inequalities.”
Traffic, noise, crime, litter, lighting and quality of public transport are believed to discourage people from poorer communities, especially the elderly, from staying physically active. In contrast, living in areas with walkable green spaces helps urban-dwelling pensioners to live longer.
Sustrans has several projects to tackle health inequalities by encouraging everyone to achieve the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity five times per week. The charity’s flagship project, the National Cycle Network, runs within one mile of 60% of people living in the top 25% of deprived areas. And among its Active Travel projects, unused bikes are being refurbished to build up a free bike loan scheme in Luton.
The Active travel and health inequalities information sheet can be downloaded at www.activetravel.org.uk
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