Why it’s not always ‘normal’ to exercise – and how that could change

CEDAR PhD Student Anna Le Gouais writes about why her commute and her research are intimately connected.

I cruise past the snake of slow moving traffic, the breeze on my face and my raincoat in my basket, in case the weather forecast is wrong, again. The painted cycle path is sacrificed to a bus stop as I near the junction and I squeeze past the stationary cars to reach the cycle area at the front of the queue just before the lights change. Cars and buses overtake me, sometimes worrying close, but I’m used to it – I cycle to and from the office every day, often via nursery too with my daughter in the bike seat behind me.

You may be thinking that I’m a fitness freak, or perhaps that I’ve lost my licence. But you’d be wrong. I’m actually pretty lazy… and I can drive! I do occasionally think about doing some ‘normal’ exercise, like going for a run, but I don’t. I know it’s good for me, but I have plenty of excuses: I’m too busy, too tired, it’s raining outside. My main excuse tends to involve having two young kids, but we all have our own reasons why we don’t do as much exercise as we should. The government recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week, but around 60% of men and 72% of women in the UK don’t manage this. This is putting us at risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, as well impacting on mental health and obesity. It increases the risk of premature death by 30% and may cost the NHS around £1 billion a year.

I suspect I too would risk falling into the ‘physically inactive’ category if it wasn’t for my cycling commute. And why do I do it? It’s very little to do with my health. Rather, because it is simply the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to get around. I’m lucky to live in Cambridge where it’s perfectly normal to cycle, even with a child (or two!) in a bike seat, despite what is still a pretty variable quality of cycle paths. However, I know it’s better than much of the rest of the country.

But what if it was easier for us to get some exercise? What if our environments encouraged us to walk and cycle? It may not be feasible to move everyone to within walking distance of work; but town planning, especially for new developments, can significantly influence how we move around. If you have a safe, direct and pleasant route to a local shop, separated from fast traffic, you are more likely to go by bike or walk than if need to cross busy roads or take a long circuitous route because there’s no cut-through. The evidence is telling us that a town planned for the car will lead to more driving, whilst one designed to be walkable and bikeable will encourage people to be active. Even for longer commutes, enabling part of the journey to be made on foot or bike can raise activity levels. This can reduce congestion, improve air quality, and enable us to live healthier lives. There’s even evidence to suggest it is more cost-effective to build cycle paths compared to roads when considering the health savings.

My research will look into how planning decisions are made for ‘active living’ infrastructure, such as that for walking, cycling and open spaces. Many different groups influence these decisions, from planners to elected councillors, and my research will look into how these groups approach the design of new communities and what information or evidence they use to support their decision making. Do planners in local government engage with public health practitioners to support healthy urban environments, or do they base their decisions on precedent and prioritise the car? Do local councillors and MPs seek out and use evidence, or are they swayed only by the concerns of local residents? Do the police promote dead-end cul-de-sacs as a way to avoid crime at the expense of footpaths? Can developers support walking and cycling infrastructure if it reduces space for housing?

By better understanding what information and evidence policymakers need to make our towns and cities more active could lead to healthier designs. Perhaps more economic analysis showing cost effectiveness will persuade some groups. Perhaps other issues (not necessarily health) will be more influential for others.

We all know that we should do more exercise – it will help us to feel better and live longer. But when we’re all as busy (or as lazy) as we are, it needs to be easier if we’re going to do more of it. Enabling healthier towns and cities to be built could make a difference. Perhaps one day cycling to work could become normal everywhere.