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Biology, Psychology, Sport, Sustainability

Do I walk because I’m healthy or am I healthy because I walk?

I remember when the office I was working in was moving. We were moving from an industrial area with ample free parking to the centre of downtown with no free parking. I was thrilled. The transit access was going to be much better and there were safer bike routes. But not everyone felt the same. They might, they conceded be able to take public transit, but they couldn’t get to the transit without driving. This is a fair concern but I thought I had the solution. The person I was talking with could easily park at my house and then walk to the transit station. “How far?” they asked. I replied that it wasn’t far at all, about a 15-20 minute walk. Well, I was told just how far that is and they went searching for a new solution that involved no more than 5 minutes of walking (and that was stretching it).

Since then I’ve learned to qualify any claims I make about how far away something is with statements like “but I don’t mind walking.” But it did get me wondering. I have commuted by bike and through a combination of transit and walking for years and I quite enjoy it. But, I am also an athlete, training multiple times a week for multiple sports. So do I use active transportation modes (the walking and biking) because I’m relatively fit or am I fit because I use these modes? Okay in all honesty, I started biking everywhere when I couldn’t afford a car. I improved my fitness at this time but I was already athletic so I think my answer is that I was willing to do the active transportation because I was fit. But I notice the benefits of doing so, especially for my mental health.

This matches the results found by Kroesen and De Vos (2020). They examined this question and found that healthier people as measured by BMI (which has flaws as the only measure but is an okay starting point for future research) were more likely to use active transport modes. They conclude therefore that to get people to use active transportation you need to improve physical health first using other measures such as diet. However, they did find, as I have, that active travel improved mental health but higher levels of mental health did not lead to increased active travel choices.

So what does this mean? In order to address climate change we will likely need to change our daily travel habits, but to do that we are probably more likely to be successful by changing the distances people have to travel. This could be done by supporting more people in working from home, which might be more likely given the current Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the number of people now working from home. Changing how our communities are built will also have an impact by having higher density communities with mixed use so that you can get groceries or coffee or work within your neighbourhood. But we probably still need to find other ways to address the overall fitness of our populations, as I once went grocery shopping with someone who drove the two blocks to the grocery store.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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