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Source: Centre for Ageing Better 

January 2021

The Centre for Ageing Better is delighted to have commissioned a team led by Sustrans to conduct an evidence review and primary research examining the preferences for, barriers to, and enablers of active travel among 50–70 year olds.

Active travel refers to the use of physically active means (usually walking and cycling) for our ordinary, everyday trips – such as going to work, seeing friends, going shopping, visiting the doctor or dentist or running errands. Active travel as a policy area isn’t new: in 2017, the government published a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy that set out their ambition that “cycling and walking are the natural choices for shorter journeys, or as part of a longer journey.” 

Being physically inactive – not exercising enough and not moving enough – is one of the most important behavioural risk factors for the development of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, COPD or coronary heart disease, which significantly impact our ability to go about our daily lives. Data in our recently published flagship report, State of Ageing 2020, shows that more than a fifth (21%) of all 50-64 year olds (2.23 million people) across England have one such condition and 15% (1.6 million people) no fewer than three.

But there are shocking variations by level of wealth within these statistics: the poorest among us can expect to live to just a little over the age of 50 (53 for men and 51 for women) before the onset of such health conditions. That means that, on average, the poorest men spend the last quarter (28%) of their lives – and the poorest women the last third (35%) – living with a chronic, long-term health condition.

The fact that that so many of us spend so much of our lives in poor health is reason enough for urgent action. But few of us will have foreseen the extent to which the Coronavirus pandemic would amplify the detrimental impact of such conditions, with outcomes from the virus often so much worse for people already in poor health.

Improving health

Health improvement, as previously noted, is key to the nation’s post-COVID-19 recovery. And, although Boris Johnson’s own brush with COVID-19 led to a strong focus on the need to tackle obesity that will hopefully be maintained in the long term, health improvement overall will require a multi-pronged approach that targets all risk factors, including low levels of physical inactivity. Currently, far too many people are not doing nearly enough physical activity: almost a quarter of 45-54 year olds do less than 30 minutes per week, and the proportion of people who are not active enough increases with age, to two in five people aged 75-84.

Changing the behaviours of inactive people is notoriously difficult. But Sustrans and Ageing Better think that getting people moving more via ‘active travel’ holds promise. And Sustrans already have expertise in this area; their Cycling for Everyone, for example, was a guide to support local government and the transport sector to make cycling a more inclusive activity for everyone.

Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic has been the kickstart it has given to more active forms of travel: bike sales have skyrocketed and the government has announced a £250 million emergency active travel fund, the first stage of a £2 billion investment.

Aims of the project

So, this is our moment – and we must get it right if we are to sustain the increased public and political interest in cycling and walking that has been prompted by the pandemic. We want to be confident that the measures being rolled out at speed across the country are evidence-based and will work for people of all ages and abilities. And finally, we must ensure that the needs and preferences of people in mid-life are heard and accounted for – if we can get this age group walking and cycling more in the long term, it will have huge benefits for their health and wellbeing in later life, and that will have positive implications for society more broadly.

It is our aim that the evidence generated by this active travel project should be used by local transport authorities, local planners, local public health bodies and other interested parties to improve support and opportunities for active travel at a local and national level. To this end, we have convened an advisory group comprising individuals from local and central government, transport authorities and other myriad organisations whose remit is to promote sport and physical activity. They will work with us to ensure that the evidence generated is usable and shapes practice.

We’ll provide updates on the progress of the project here on our website but if you’re interested in learning more or want to talk about how this piece of research might help what you’re doing in practice, please get in touch with Dr Aideen Young

Read Sustrans blog: Active travel is vital for ageing better, which explains more about the project.

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