Regular physical activity benefits long-term health, including mental health, and helps to prevent over 20 common health conditions. The UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidance for adults includes 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, and that the easiest way to achieve this is through daily activity such as walking and cycling.
Over 4 in 10 women (42%) and 1 in 3 men (34%) in England are not active enough for good health, with human and economic costs for the individual, communities and the health and social care system. The most recent estimates are that physical inactivity costs the NHS more than £450 million a year at Clinical Commissioning Group level, equating to £817,274 per 100,000 individuals or £8.17 per person.
This rapid evidence review is intended for health and social care policy makers, decision makers and commissioners and attempts to address the following question: “What is the impact of walking and/or cycling on different health outcomes?”
This review found that walking and cycling benefit health in a number of ways:
- people who walk or cycle have improved metabolic health and a reduced risk of premature mortality
- walking and cycling reduce the risk factors for a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, some cancers, and Type II diabetes
- walking and cycling also have positive effects on mental health and general wellbeing. The mental health and neurological benefits include reduced risk of dementia, improved sleep quality, and a greater sense of wellbeing
- in environmental terms, health benefits accrue for the general population from a reduction in pollution due to car use and a decrease in road congestion
- the evidence is that the health benefits of walking and cycling outweigh any potential health risks and harms – for example from injury or pollution
The weight of evidence suggests that if walking and cycling can be increased, they have potential to lead to important health gains at the population level, and thus benefit the NHS and the wider health and care system.
The evidence is stronger and more consistent for certain health outcomes, and evidence gaps remain in some areas. There is little direct evidence about whether walking or cycling to work might have different health effects to walking or cycling for leisure.
There is little specific evidence available on the benefits of walking and cycling for people with disabilities and those living with long-term conditions. Similarly, there is little about the effects on groups living with different levels of deprivation. It would be helpful if these gaps were addressed, particularly regarding practical methods to improve access to physical activity for these groups.