Encouraging incidental physical exercise could save lives and more than $30m: study

MAKING active transport an easy option would save millions of dollars and help to stem the rising levels of diabetes and other health issues such as depression and dementia, according to a new Melbourne study.

The study, which was conducted by Melbourne GP Margaret Beavis with Deakin University Population Health Professor Marj Moodie, analysed the daily travel patterns and incidental physical activity – such as the time spent walking to get to transport or shops – of over 29,000 people.

It found that car drivers averaged 8 to 10 minutes of incidental exercise daily, while public transport users averaged 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.

Pedestrians at Flinders Street Station, Melbourne
Above: Pedestrians crossing Flinders Street, Melbourne / by Luca Pascotto.

"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," Dr Beavis said.

"The World Health Organisation declared physical activity a 'best buy' in 2012 when it comes to disease prevention, because 30 minutes exercise daily significantly improves outcomes in so many diseases and reduces premature death rates by 20-22 per cent.

"Making active transport an easy option would go a long way to turning the tide on Australia's rapidly rising levels of diabetes and other health issues such as depression and dementia."

The researchers also looked at the health implications (deaths and disability) of this incidental physical activity.

Conservative 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.

"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," Dr Beavis said.

"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. This study provides valuable information to guide government decision making."

In October last year, the National Heart Foundation of Australia released the second edition of its 'Blueprint for an active Australia', which outlines actions to increase levels of physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour.

During the recent Victorian election campaign, Labor announced it will establish a new division within the Department of Transport, named Active Transport Victoria, to support increased participation and safety among cyclists and pedestrians across Melbourne and regional cities.

The study, 'Incidental physical activity in Melbourne, Australia: health and economic impacts of mode of transport and suburban location', was published in the December 2014 issue of the Health Promotion Journal of Australia.

Photo: Pedestrians crossing Flinders Street, Melbourne / 'Walk the station' / Luca Pascotto / Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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