Next Step at University

Our latest report, launched in time for our National Walking Summit in Manchester, is entitled Is Walking a Miracle Cure?

Our Policy and Research Assistant, Holly, discusses why the timing of its release matters, and takes us through some of its key findings.

Holly Barden

If physical activity were a drug, we would refer to it as a miracle cure, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and treat.

UK Chief Medical Officers

This is what the UK Chief Medical Officers (CMO) say about walking and it provides the inspiration behind our latest publication: ‘Is walking a miracle cure?’, launching today (6th March) in time for our National Walking Summit held in Manchester.

We are currently facing several public health crises. Physical inactivity is responsible for one in six deaths in the UK – which is on par with smoking. Obesity levels are at a record high and there has been a sharp rise in ill-mental health and loneliness, with health services struggling to cope with rising demand.

The UK is also home to a rapidly ageing population who are living for much longer – but not necessarily in good health. Life expectancy has increased faster than healthy life expectancy. Just last week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity emphasised the scale of preventable illness in the UK in their ‘Health of the Nation’ strategy, stating that change is essential, possible and affordable.

This is where our report comes in. We propose that increasing physical activity levels – by walking more, and by creating the kinds of places that enable more walking – is one of the best ways to manage and prevent ill health at a low cost, and in a socially equitable way.

Two people crossing the road
Parent and child

We know that keeping active makes us feel better physically and mentally and helps to keep us healthy as we age. We focus on walking specifically because its free, accessible, non-polluting, and can be easily integrated into everyday life.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says walking is “the most likely way all adults can achieve the recommended levels of physical activity” . But we still don’t do enough of it. Over 60% of journeys of 1-2 miles that could be walked are still made by car . So why are we not walking more?

Our report explores some of the barriers (both habitual and physical) which prevent us from walking more. For example, how car dependency built into new developments compels us to drive even the shortest of journeys. Walking environments end up busy, noisy and polluted – with deprived communities worst affected – which deters our more vulnerable road-users from walking more.

There is also no single up-to-date design standard for walking, nor a fully developed tool able to identify where interventions to improve walking networks are needed. The result is that walking is heavily undervalued relative to other modes, receiving just a fraction of the investment road and rail are designated.

What interests us is how we can overcome these challenges and ensure walking and better walking environments are championed as part of the solution to our public health crises. Our recommendations fall under ten headings. Here are some of the highlights:

Couple walking on the pavement

We think health practitioners should increase the social prescribing of walking to patients – especially those with pre-existing health conditions. This could be accompanied by the launch of a major public awareness campaign promoting walking as the easiest way to increase physical activity levels.

New development should help reduce the need to travel. We want planners to assess all housing proposals against the Transport for New Homes checklist to ensure public transport, services, leisure and employment opportunities are within walking distance.

The Government must adopt the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for PM2.5 now and reach them by 2030, to ensure our air is safe to walk in.

We are calling on the Government to provide more investment in low traffic neighbourhoods because these are a great way to re-prioritise walking and cycling, creating healthy lifestyles and communities.

We believe that transport appraisal models should be aligned with wider public policy, especially health goals. In other words, since walking helps to prevent ill health and is the cleanest, greenest form of transport, with a low cost to high benefit ratio, it should be valued accordingly.

Ultimately, walking creates healthier minds, bodies and communities, and of course contributes to a carbon-free future. Yet, because of its habitual nature, it gets taken for granted. We hope our report helps to change minds and influences policymakers incorporate walking into the way we design our towns and cities, or that it simply inspires people to walk more. 

Read the full report

Older people walking

It’s time to get up and walk our way to a better life.

Professor Shane O’Mara, In Praise of Walking, 2019

What you can do