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Irish people don't walk enough - and it's affecting their health

A conference heard that towns and cities need to be improved to make it easier and more attractive to walk and cycle.
Jun 11th 2013, 7:15 AM 9,510 43

DO YOU WALK every day – or is walking something you only do to and from the car door?

Only one-third of the Irish population is meeting the minimum recommended weekly levels of physical activity, and the low levels of walking are contributing to long-term health problems.

A seminar held in UCC , which was hosted by Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH), the Centre of Excellence for Public Health (Queen’s University Belfast) and the HRB Centre for Health and Diet Research (UCC), heard more about this issue.

Why walkability is essential

Dr Kevin Balanda, Associate Director of IPH, said that the low level of physical activity across the island has many implications for public health.

Recent IPH studies suggest that by 2020 there will be large increases in the numbers of people with obesity-related chronic conditions. IPH forecasts that, by 2020, there will be 366,000 people with hypertension, 176,000 with diabetes and 29,000 with stroke. It is essential that we reverse this trend; part of the solution is to ensure that our towns and cities are more conducive to walking – in other words are more walkable.

Queen’s University Belfast’s Dr Mark Tully said that in line with worldwide trends, only one third of the Irish population meet the minimum recommended level of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity – such as walking or cycling – per week.

He said that “urgent action is required to tackle this inactivity epidemic”, and that neighbourhood designs that support healthier choices are essential.

Suburbs

UCC’s William Brady said that census data from 2011 shows that only 3 per cent of the population in some of the Cork suburban areas he studied walk or cycle to work or school.

One of the major reasons why the numbers walking in these suburbs – and in the rest of our towns and cities – is so low is because of the poor design of pedestrian routes and the distances people have to travel get to basic amenities like schools, parks, shops, bus stops and work.

While Brady said that given the state of the economy, the amount of ‘new build’ is going to be very limited over the next few years.

Unfortunately, many of the suburban residential areas built over the last 20 years or so around the country don’t encourage, and in fact actually discourage, walking as a mode of transport because of physical barriers to walking and the poor quality of the pedestrian facilities.

He said that it would be good to think of ways to ‘retrofit’ suburban areas to introduce walkability, which may involve partially removing or breaching existing boundary walls within many housing estates.

Exercising outdoors

Dr Tully stressed the importance of making our neighbourhoods more walkable and attractive in order to tackle obesity.

Dr Colin Sage from UCC’s Department of Geography, said that research seems to show that exercise in proximity to nature has a positive effect on mental health as it enhances mood and self-esteem.

However, he also said that to facilitate that, urban and suburban areas need to be made more aesthetically pleasing, while there is a need to tackle the safety issue of motorised transport.

Professor Geraint Ellis, Queen’s University Belfast said that the university has been involved in measuring the potential impact of an improved environment on levels of physical activity in the local community.

It has begun to develop new tools to measure walkability, which have now been applied across the cities of Belfast and Derry.

Improving the walkability of our towns and cities demands the combined efforts of those working in planning and public health as well as the management of public services such as parks and public transport.

Are there good walkways or places to cycle near where you live? Tell us in the comments below.

Read: The 10 developed countries with the worst quality of life>

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Aoife Barry

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