The evidence is compelling. If it was in the form of a tablet, it would be hailed as the new miracle pill. The number of diseases and chronic conditions it can prevent and treat, the percentage reduced risk of morbidity and mortality, the impact on quality of life: all are impressive. So what is this all-pervasive medicine? Simple. Physical activity. Moving around.
Sounds simple, but with our current sedentary lifestyles, it isn’t that easy to fit physical activity into our daily lives. We sit in our cars, at our desks, on our sofas. We might play a sport on a Saturday or visit a gym twice a week, but for the treatment to be effective it needs to be more or less daily. Even with the best intentions, can we really expect a New Year’s resolution to be enough to get us what we need in terms of physical activity?
I remember when I first discovered this miracle drug. I was 21 and had just finished my junior year abroad during my undergraduate degree and was whiling away my reduced summer holidays (English University terms end later and American University semesters start earlier than their counterparts) in my home town doing temp work: 5am shifts to touch up the paint on computer chasses in a warehouse or sorting the patient files at a Catholic medical practice with far too many families with the same Irish and French Canadian surnames. So I was bored and ripe to my mother’s suggestion that I try something new.
It wasn’t that I thought I needed the exercise. I considered myself reasonably active already. I’d played soccer in a town league during high school and again over in the UK where they called it football, usually twice a week. In between, I had taken up archery – not very aerobic in itself, but the coach had us going to the gym to use the machines once a week. Besides, I didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere in my first two years and cycled everywhere in my third year. Not that walking and cycling ‘everywhere’ was an extensive workout – even without rushing, I could usually get most of the places I wanted to go within 10 minutes, particularly in the compact New York City campus. But I figured I was fit enough, even if I had to admit that I was still carrying a bit more ‘baby fat’ than I’d have liked.
Then I started going to Jazzercise with my mother. It was aerobics, but choreographed so it was more like dancing. I was soon addicted and went at least 4 times a week for about 6 weeks. We paid by the month, so it cost less per session to go more often. And I found I was actually losing weight. That soon stabilised, and indeed, the medical impact of physical activity has more to do with fitness and combatting the effects of aging than with weight loss or gain, but ever since I have felt compelled to get some sort of physical activity into my schedule on as close to a daily basis as possible.
Yet, to go back to my earlier point, it’s not that easy to fit in an aerobics class or a sport session as it was that summer. Time, cost, other priorities are stacked against doing so. Still, it turns out that I had the right idea even before I discovered the joys of being regularly active. Walking and cycling as all or part of getting where you need to go each day is enough for the basic maintenance of personal physical fitness, especially for older people. But you need to push yourself to a decent speed (between 3 and 4 mph on foot) and the activity should last 10 minutes or more. On the other hand, every time you do it counts.
And that’s why this miracle medical treatment is such an important tool for a transport planner. We have many ways to help people travel actively but the story of how it can improve their health and their lives is what may actually convince them to do so. Combined, the transport and health factors may motivate just a little more and for a little longer than a January date and soon-forgotten mid-winter overindulgence.