Steps in the Right Direction: Lessons from Europe on Encouraging Cycling and Walking. (Research Update)

Article excerpt

"In order to improve public health, national governments should develop and implement strategies to stimulate daily cycling: It is the most effective way to save billions of funds in the health sector and solve traffic and environmental problems at the same time."--Dr. Harry Owen, School of Medicine, Flinders University of South Australia and President of the Bicycle Federation of Australia

The consensus among researchers investigating physical activity as a key component of healthy lifestyles is that physical activity should be moderate, frequent and maintained for life (USDHHS 1996). Unfortunately, technological developments provide labor-saving devices that reduce human energy expenditures and encourage sedentary lifestyles. Physical activity has nearly been excluded from our lifestyles, and is relegated to a leisure activity for many people. The journey to work, school and local shops in previous decades involved walking and cycling; nowadays, these trips are mostly by motor vehicle. Data overwhelmingly indicate that approximately 60 percent of U.S. adults aren't sufficiently active to achieve health benefits, and about 30 percent report no leisure-time physical activity (Jones, Ainsworth & Croft et al., 1998).

Park and recreation departments play an important role in facilitating healthy activity of citizens in the U.S. It's important that all park and recreation professionals be informed of new ideas and policies focused on changing the built environment to make physical activity in our neighborhoods easier, safer and more enjoyable. By implementing and promoting certain types of programs and policies focused on developing supportive built environments, park and recreation professionals, often in concert with other municipal partners, are poised to play a critical role in physical activity promotion in the U.S. The purpose of this research update is to inform park and recreation professionals about the latest research on this topic, with a special focus on lessons we can learn from certain countries in Europe, where impressively high levels of walking and biking are seen. A number of recommendations are presented that, if applied to our communities, have great potential for encouraging greater rates of walking and cycling within our neighborhoods, thereby increasing the health and well-being of our communities.

A Call To Action: Promoting Walking and Cycling

Professionals in all health-related fields recognize the urgent need to encourage and enable individuals to incorporate more physical activity into their lives. Getting more people walking and cycling as part of daily life may be one of the best ways to improve society's health and tackle sedentary lifestyles. There's a developing opinion around the world that cycling and walking should be promoted. A recent report from the World Health Organization has identified cycling and walking for transport as a health-promoting and sustainable mode of transport to be encouraged over car use wherever possible. (The report is available at www.euro.who.int/document/ e72015.pdf.) Other influential groups have joined the call for promoting active forms of transport. For example, the British Medical Association has determined that a shift from car to bicycle/pedestrian travel should be pursued in the same manner that other important health issues have been pursued successfully in the past, such as anti-smoking and wearing seat belts (BMA, 1992).

The individual and societal benefits of promoting walking and cycling are numerous and wide-ranging. Walking and cycling provide the opportunity for regular, moderate physical activity. They offer healthy alternatives to using motorized vehicles for short trips, such as to shops, schools and workplaces. They are modes of transport that don't cause noise or air pollution. The only energy required is provided directly by the traveler, and the activity confers valuable cardiovascular and weight-control benefits (Anderson, 2000). …