Technical Paper 1:
Obesity in Australia: a need for urgent action
4.6.5 - Active environments
Community and neighbourhood environments influence walking, cycling and public transport use, as well as recreational physical activity. There are some good policy precedents and some encouraging research findings on the links between environment and physical activity.[121, 122] People who have access to safe places to be active and neighbourhoods that are walkable are likely to be more active. Creating more ‘liveable’ neighbourhoods has the potential to produce significant sustainability benefits by reducing car use, improving access to local services and through more efficient land use.
Approaches involving multiple settings and multilevel strategies appear to have the greatest effect on physical activity behavioural change. A greater focus on active transport to and from work is a potential strategy that could increase opportunities for physical activity among working populations. This is reflected in the UK Healthy Weight Healthy Lives ‘Walking into Health’ initiative. Results from the pilot of an existing UK program, ‘Sustainable Travel Towns’, in three towns suggest walking has increased by around 20% and cycling by almost 50% in two years, accompanied by reductions in car and public transport use.
Research has examined the community design correlates of obesity. For example:
- Time spent in a car as passenger or driver: every additional 60 minutes per day spent in a car increased the odds of being obese by 6%
- Walk distance: each kilometre walked reduced the odds of being obese by 4.8%
- Land use: each quartile increase in land use mix (i.e. mixing residential with other uses such as retail, workplaces etc) associated with 12.2% reduced odds of being obese.
Development in countries such as the US has traditionally been based on the assumption of long-distance, private car trips and thus long-term planning is required to modify current practices and infrastructure to facilitate the widespread community adoption of active and public transport. In addition, barriers to the implementation and adoption of active transport must be considered: these include poor health, weather, time of travel and access to showers.
Top of Page
Active living, climate change and environmental sustainability
There are many areas in which improving health is entirely compatible with increasing environmental sustainability, such as walking and cycling for transport. Both obesity prevention and climate change require societal change with cross-governmental action and long-term commitment, as well as partnership between government, science, business and the community/individuals. It is clear that measures to design sustainable communities, reduce traffic congestion and increase active transport such as walking and cycling are all initiatives that would address both problems; addressing them together would enhance the effectiveness of action.
While we must wait for hard evidence to emerge from future initiatives, research has already begun to consider the association between environmental sustainability objectives and the promotion of active living.
For example, a US study calculated the travel distances equated with recommended daily walking and cycling levels, and modelled the effects of this type of active transport on weight loss, oil consumption and carbon emissions. Results indicated that if all Americans aged 10–74 years met daily recommended physical activity targets through one hour of walking (5km) or cycling (20km), replacing car travel over the same distances, oil consumption in the US could be reduced by up to 38%; the average individual would expend around 12.2kg of fat annually for walking and 26.0kg of fat for cycling; and carbon dioxide emissions would be significantly reduced. The potential level of weight loss was concluded to be sufficient to eliminate obese and overweight conditions in a few years for all but extreme cases without reducing food intake. The subsequent financial savings were estimated to be substantial, based on reductions in healthcare expenditure and productivity losses related to ill health. While based on simplified calculations, the results nonetheless illustrate the great potential of active transport to reduce energy demand and carbon emissions, as well as to provide extensive health benefits to individuals and society.
Top of Page
In recent years the community has embraced a range of activities addressing climate change, such as reduction in water and energy use; installation of home rainwater tanks; the use of low-energy light bulbs and green products in the home; increased recycling; greater awareness of food supply concepts such as ‘food miles’; and limiting detrimental environmental impacts associated with agricultural methods, food transport and packaging processes by purchasing local produce. Sustainability initiatives could be used to harness community support to address the obesity crisis; for example, the promotion of physical activity with the message that people can save petrol money, help the environment and incidentally get healthier through the adoption of exercise-based transport (cycling and walking) and public transport use to reach schools, workplaces, shops, community centres, and by shopping locally at fresh produce markets.