Research that Population Health Professor Marj Moodie and I have conducted has found that incidental physical activity from active transport, such as walking to catch the train to work or cycling to the shops, can save lives and money.
The results of the study suggest that hundreds of lives and millions of health sector dollars could be saved from the minutes of incidental exercise associated with active transport, ie transport-related walking and cycling.
The WHO declared physical activity a “best buy” in 2012 when it comes to disease prevention, because 30 minutes exercise daily significantly improves outcomes in many diseases and reduces premature death rates by 20-22 percent. Giving people a choice whether they take public transport, walk, cycle or drive has major impacts on health outcomes, both at an individual level and for the whole population. Making active transport an easy option would go a long way to turning the tide on Australia’s rapidly rising levels of diabetes and also has significant impact on many other health issues such as depression and dementia.
The study analysed the daily travel patterns and incidental physical activity, such as the time spent walking to get to transport, of over 29,000 people in Melbourne. The results showed car drivers averaged 8 – 10 minutes of incidental exercise daily, public transport users 35 minutes daily, and walkers/cyclists 38 minutes daily. People in the inner city were found to be more than six times more likely to get sufficient physical activity from travel compared with people living in the outer suburbs.
“The economic modelling found the incidental physical activity could result in 272 less deaths per year, 903 fewer new cases of disease and savings of up to $12.2 million in the health sector and $22.9 million in lost production.”
A health economic model (which specifically analysed new cases of five diseases: Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, bowel cancer and breast cancer) was used to look at the implications of this incidental physical activity. Other illnesses and the treatment benefits of physical activity were not included in the model, so the results are very conservative.
The economic modelling found the incidental physical activity could result in 272 less deaths per year, 903 fewer new cases of disease and savings of up to $12.2 million in the health sector and $22.9 million in lost production. This model uses friction cost analysis( a standard economic measure), where a life is valued by society at 3 months salary, so again the numbers are very conservative.
Overall, the study showed that public transport users, walkers, cyclists and those living closer to the city centre were more likely to get enough travel-related physical activity to gain significant health benefits, with these people easily getting the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day just from incidental physical activity. For more information the article is available at http://www.publish.csiro.au/?paper=HE14057
Governments have to make choices about public transport and road building, so it is important the health of the community and economic savings are factored in. As DEA members would well understand, better infrastructure is also likely to reduce emissions, further saving lives and money in the long run.
Margaret Beavis DEA Member
President, Medical Association for Prevention of War