Social prescribing and active travel – an opportunity

Chris Bennett, head of behaviour change and engagement at Sustrans explores the pros of social prescribing and what is needed to really reap the benefits

It was recently announced that walking, wheeling and cycling have been included as part of social prescribing, within an upcoming NHS pilot due to be delivered as a year-long scheme in 11 areas throughout England.
Yet, social prescribing has existed for years as advised activity from GPs for patients to attend social activities in their community, which can range from attending classes, group meetings, as well as simply meeting friends and family.
Sustrans, the UK’s largest walking and cycling charity, is excited to welcome this, but what does this pilot aim to achieve?

The benefit of active travel
The addition of active travel may seem self-evident, but research continues to show its benefits. The University of Edinburgh suggests that walking and cycling at current recommended levels can achieve risk reductions in premature mortality of 11 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.
There are obviously many benefits of active travel on health, but this is most easily achieved when incorporating the physical activity into our everyday lifestyles.
Walking and cycling reduce risk factors for diseases such as cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and Type II diabetes. According to Diabetes UK, physically active people have a 33-50 per cent lower risk of developing Type II diabetes compared to inactive people, whilst Cancer Research UK highlights that keeping active could help to prevent more than 3,000 UK cancer cases every year.

This pilot, entwining social prescribing with walking and cycling, aims to provide a boost to the overall health of patients, to the benefit of mental wellbeing and combating a range of medical conditions.

How did we get here?
Just as Covid lockdowns decreased social occasions, opportunities for physical activity were also reduced, especially for travelling actively. With the restrictions, we weren’t able to walk to the café at the corner of the road to buy a coffee, or to commute into work by cycle, or simply enjoy a day out shopping and seeing friends on high streets.
Cycling levels did increase during lockdown, and whilst this shows a reliance on present cycling infrastructure, there were still many who did not engage with cycling or, particularly, walking throughout the pandemic.
Car-dependency is a primary cause of inactivity in the UK, which can have hugely negative consequences for our health, our economy, and our NHS. Sustrans is therefore excited to welcome this pilot and to see the positive results enjoyed and will be supporting those looking for advice on getting started with active travel.
Currently, 27.2 per cent of adults do less than 30 minutes physical activity a week, whilst around 40 per cent of adults do less than 10 minutes brisk walking a month. This is a real risk to their physical and mental health.

Walking, cycling and mental health
The impact of reduced social and physical activity on the health and wellbeing of thousands up and down the UK was realised, with some feeling unable to revert to pre-Covid social and physical habits, to the detriment of their mental health.
From this, the Government is targeting prescribed social activities as a support to the recovery of many ailments; depression, anxiety, and many other complex mental health conditions, but notably loneliness - which is a present threat to the UK public’s health.
This is a growing issue in our communities, and health professionals have pushed for social prescribing to the point of this pilot scheme being initiated between this year and 2025.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, physical activity can be as effective as medication and counselling, whilst the NHS says regular exercise can help combat mild to moderate depression.
Many are unaware of the positive impact that in-person social activity can have on physical and mental health, just as they may not know that isolation and other severe mental health trauma are a profoundly important factor in feeling depressed, which in turn affects physical health.

An appetite for active travel
We expect this pilot will also be welcomed by a great majority of the public, as we know that opportunity for travelling actively is in great demand, as was made evident during the pandemic.
Our Paths for Everyone – Three Years On report found that 89 per cent of users felt that improving their wellbeing was a factor in using the National Cycle Network. The Network spans 12,619 miles throughout the UK, with approximately 50 per cent of people living within one mile of it, and over a third living within a 10-minute walk.
At the height of pandemic in 2020, the Network carried 4.9 million users over 764.8 million trips, showing massive public reliance on walking and cycling infrastructure. 72 per cent of users said it was their best option for transport, with 95 per cent using it for exercise.
We all know that health and community services are extremely stretched at the moment, so they need support to be able to implement this, which is where the Network is of great importance to the hopes of this pilot.
The appetite for active travel is clearly strong, but it also holds an importance essential to the UK’s social and economic development, as well for the health of ourselves and our planet.
Sustrans’ Walking and Cycling Index, showed that in 2021 walking, wheeling and cycling created £36.5 billion of economic benefit across the UK.
This research also found that physically active people take 27 per cent fewer sick days each year than their colleagues. The base of this solution, for mental and physical health, is people travelling actively to enjoy being together.
We should also remember that physical inactivity costs the NHS up £1 billion per year, with further indirect costs calculated at a startling £8.2 billion.

What is needed to make this work?
Ultimately, humans are meant to be together. Once we were tribes and now we are communities, and we’re supposed to be physically active on a very regular basis. This pilot and these prescriptions are to encourage the behaviour change towards more walking and cycling, which must be long-term and cannot be achieved quickly – especially as people will need support from organisations such as Sustrans to start and maintain this vital change.
If social prescribing with elements of active travel is to be effective, then UK walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure must see continued investment and development, so the public feel safe and confident in fulfilling their GP’s advice to improve their health.
Walking, wheeling and cycling are essentially opportunities. They are opportunities to exercise, to enjoy outdoors and hopefully green spaces, to meet our neighbours, and to engage with our communities. It is all the things our very nature as humans expects us to do.

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