Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 133 - 139)




  133. Can I welcome you to the second session of the Committee's inquiry into Walking in Towns, and ask you to identify yourselves for the record please?

  (Mr Robinson) Good morning. I am Terry Robinson, I am Head of Recreation and Tourism from the Countryside Agency.

  (Mr Ashcroft) I am Peter Ashcroft, I am Project Manager for the Walking the Way to Health Initiative.
  (Mr Almond) I am Len Almond, I am Director of the British Heart Foundation's Medical Centre for Physical Activity and Health.
  (Dr Crombie) I am Hugo Crombie, Public Health Adviser, Physical Activity, Health Development Agency.
  (Ms Hamer) I am Lucy Hamer, Development Adviser, Health Improvement Programmes at the Health Development Agency.

  134. Thank you. Does anyone want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Robinson) Could I just make three points, Chairman? We believe there are benefits to be gained from people walking more. Secondly, we believe the means of achieving that is more about removing barriers that discourage people but that once that has been achieved there is some merit in then promoting walking mainly through provision of information about where opportunities exist. Thirdly, we believe achieving that has to be about activity which transcends institutional barriers, in other words it has to be joined-up activity.
  (Dr Crombie) Just a brief statement about ourselves. The Health Development Agency is a relatively new organisation and we work to promote the health of the public across various sectors. The work we do is around gathering evidence of what works in public health terms, evidence of effective interventions to promote health, dissemination of that evidence and sharing good practice, and production and dissemination of guidelines and strategies. As an example of that, recently we have worked to produce guidance on the implementation of preventative aspects of the National Service Framework on Coronary Heart Disease, which has a section on physical activity, and that includes aspects of walking as well. Physical activity promotion is going to be a key to addressing a number of health problems in the future—issues like coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity—and walking is going to be a key part of that for a number of reasons. Walking can achieve the sort of level of activity that we are trying to promote. It is the sort of thing which virtually the entire population can do and that virtually everybody does at some time or another. It does not have some of the negative aspects of other exercises which sometimes are offputting in terms of having to be super-fit, body-perfect, and that kind of thing. There are other benefits to walking which are less well understood but are almost certainly the case, in that walking provides access to the sort of facilities we all need for a healthy existence, and I am talking about shops, health care facilities, employment, recreation. Improving conditions for walking is a key aspect in increasing the rate of walking, and improving those conditions will benefit all sections of society, and it is particularly employment for those people who are more dependent on walking as transport, and I am particularly thinking of those who do not own a car for whatever reason or are not able to drive either through age or infirmity. Achieving these sort of changes is going to require action by a large number of professional groups in a large number of sectors and it is going to be achieved by an accumulation of a large number of small changes. In some ways walking can be seen like a barometer, achieving the situation where a large number of people are happy to walk and do so demonstrates that some activities are going right in a number of sectors, like community safety, environmental conditions, planning, transport and so on.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We have a series of questions. I suspect you will agree amongst yourselves on many of the answers, so please do not let us have it repeated, but if you disagree please chip in.


  135. How important is walking to health and fitness compared with other activities?
  (Mr Almond) I think you can see walking as the most perfect form of exercise. It is amenable to everybody, it is not expensive either, which is a major benefit. Its key factor is it strengthens the main muscles of the body, it exercises the heart and it can have a major impact on obesity, on diabetes, on asthma, on osteoporosis, on mental health, and also we now recognise on bowel cancer. The British Heart Foundation recently released some figures to show that the attributable risk of inactivity to heart disease was 37 per cent compared to only 18 per cent for smoking, so inactivity is now rising in terms of its relevance and significance to disease. Sport may be only accessible to a small number of people, walking is accessible to everybody.

  136. Can you actually specify what the increased benefits would be in reduced mortality and morbidity and reductions in obesity from increased walking? Do you believe there is sufficient information available to the public that something as simple as walking could have such positive benefits?
  (Mr Almond) The answer is that only approximately 22 per cent of the population would recognise the value of walking and the value of exercise for their health, which is very, very small indeed. In terms of obesity, Dr Crombie might be able to comment on the Audit Commission's work.
  (Dr Crombie) There is a report due out very soon, next week I believe, from the Audit Commission about the extent and impact of obesity. I do not know the full details of what it is going to contain but I am sure it will have interesting information in there for this Committee. Physical activity generally and walking as part of that are very important aspects in addressing obesity. There is evidence that a large part of the increase in obesity over recent years is due to reductions in activity rather than increases in food intake, so addressing that imbalance is very important. Also, generally speaking, successful interventions to deal with overweight and obesity include physical activity. Particularly when you are dealing with a population of people who may be overweight and maybe unwilling or not keen on other forms of vigorous physical activity, such as going to the gym or aerobics or sport, walking is a very useful way of getting them active.

Mr Olner

  137. It is all right trying to encourage people to walk to work, but for somebody who is on their feet all day and doing exercise while they are doing their work that is very different from somebody just going to work and sitting in a prone position. Have you differentiated at all?
  (Dr Crombie) There is evidence you can get people to walk to work, there are a number of schemes which have been very successful in doing that.

  138. But have you differentiated between people's occupations and their willingness to walk to work?
  (Dr Crombie) Occupational work is taken into account in looking at physical activities.
  (Mr Almond) The largest surveys have taken that into account and of course there is a considerable reduction in the amount of physical activity in the workplace because of the reduction in that type of activity, so it is important we encourage walking. If we can increase the number of people walking by 5 per cent, it is recognised in America they could save 2.6 billion dollars just by increasing it by 5 per cent, and recent figures for 2000 would show that is in the region of 8 billion dollars. If you look at the work done in Northern Ireland, which is the closest to estimates of gain here, we could save 121 lives by increasing walking by 5 per cent and 131 million in terms of economic cost, and that is just in one small part of the UK. So there are substantial benefits. If you would like, I have done a review of that and brought a paper along with me, which reviews all the evidence on economic benefits.

  Chairman: That would be very helpful. Thank you.

Miss McIntosh

  139. If we accept there are benefits, how are you actually going to get people to increase their habit of walking by three or four times? Is it up to you as health-interested organisations to do that or are you relying on local authorities to make areas more pedestrian-friendly?
  (Mr Ashcroft) You are asking how we can encourage everybody to walk at the recommended level of 30 minutes a day? That is a long-term vision and we must be ambitious in having long-term aims, but any short-term gain year on year to encourage a few people to walk a little bit longer than they are doing will be of immense health benefit to the nation. This is a long-term aim but we can get there.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 June 2001