Funding allocations for the 11 local authorities taking part in a $17.7m trial that enables health workers such as general practitioners (GPs) to prescribe walking and cycling to patients have been published by Active Travel England.
The U.K. government launched the social prescribing scheme in August last year. It helps councils deliver a range of projects that evaluate the impact of active travel on patients’ physical and mental health, says a statement from Active Travel England, a government agency set up to increase levels of cycling and walking.
The idea is that more physical activity will lead to a healthier population, reducing demand for healthcare appointments and reliance on medication and expensive medical treatments.
Last year the then walking and cycling minister Trudy Harrison said more cycling and walking would “ease the burden on our NHS” as well as “improving air quality and reducing congestion.”
The August 2022 announcement stated that the active travel social prescribing fund would be $16.2m in total, but following the finalization of allocations, this was increased to $17.7m.
Recipients of the trial funding include Bradford City Council, which has received $1.65m to launch schemes that will see patients offered free access to guided walking and cycling activities, cycle training and bike loans.
In Plymouth, the council is using its $1.5m share of the funding to help tackle patients’ barriers to active travel by working with them to develop personal walking and cycling plans.
“Everyone knows the great benefits from exercise to our health and wellbeing, but we often find it hard to do regular exercise,” said Dr. Mark Dornan, a GP in the Teams Medical Practice, which serves a deprived part of Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, an area with some of the highest levels of ill-health in England.
“Improving our environment so we can all keep active as part of our daily travel is key,” added Dr. Dornan, cochair of Newcastle Gateshead Clinical Commissioning Group, which commissions most health care in Newcastle and Gateshead.
Gateshead Council was awarded £1.8m in the allocations announced July 7.
Active Travel Commissioner Chris Boardman said: “Many studies have shown active travel has massive health benefits. Enabling everyone in England to travel under their own steam will help reduce conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, whilst at the same time improving mental wellbeing.”
Boardman added: “We aim to use these trials to build on the existing evidence to show how bringing transport, active travel, and health together can help build a healthier nation in an easy and sustainable way.”
Earlier this year the government decided to cut two-thirds of England’s dedicated funding for walking, wheeling and cycling despite knowing the health and other benefits it would bring.
The list of allocations for the social prescribing fund are:
Bath & North East Somerset Council – $2,054,350
City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council – $1,707,076
Cornwall Council – $1,075,937
Cumbria County Council – $1,906,214
Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council – $847,103
Gateshead Council – $1,823,170
Leeds City Council – $1,749,547
Nottingham City Council – $2,023,881
Plymouth City Council – $1,581,773
Staffordshire County Council – $1,062,978
Suffolk County Council – $1,898,688
The health benefits of more cycling and walking are many. A five-year study of 263,450 U.K. commuters, published in the British Medical Journal in 2017, found regular cycling cut the risk of death from any cause by 41%, and the incidence of cancer and heart disease by 45% and 46% respectively. Other large-scale studies have found similar.
One of the biggest and best studies about the health benefits of cycling was carried out by the Copenhagen Center for Prospective Population Studies. Over some years, researchers studied 13,375 women and 17,265 men. Many died during the study period, and their ages were logged. Those who regularly cycled—say, to work—were found to live longer.
Report author Lars Bo Andersen said: “The major findings of this large-scale study were that in both sexes and in all age groups … those who used the bicycle as transportation to work experienced a lower mortality rate even after adjustment for leisure time physical activity … Those who did not cycle to work experienced a 39% higher mortality rate than those who did.”
Cycling is chiefly an aerobic activity, one that uses great gulps of oxygen. The heart and lungs work together to bring oxygen and nutrients to the muscles: the lungs expand to bring as much oxygen into the body as possible; the heart beats faster to transport this oxygen around the body.
A strong heart and powerful lungs are the building blocks of general fitness. According to the British Heart Foundation, cycling just 20 miles per week reduces the risk of coronary heart disease to less than half that for non-cyclists.
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