Physical Activity – Good for Physical and Mental Health
The health benefits of physical activity are well known. It can reduce the risk of over 25 chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.1 It has been estimated that physical inactivity is responsible for approximately $6.8 billion per year in health-related costs because of its contribution to seven chronic diseases alone.2
Physical activity is also good for our mental health. It can improve self-esteem, sleep and cognitive functioning in older adults, and delay the onset of dementia. It can also relieve depression, anxiety, stress, and support drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Active Travel – Increases Physical Activity & Improves Health
Most Canadians are not active enough to achieve the health benefits that physical activity can offer.4 For many, a shortage of time is identified as a major barrier to getting the physical activity needed. Active travel allows busy people to build physical activity into their daily lives by replacing car trips with walking or cycling.5
A long-term study that followed thousands of people over five years found that people who commute by bicycle have a lower risk of dying prematurely from any cause and a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease or cancer. The same study found that people who commute by walking have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.6
One study found that the risk of premature death from all causes decreased by 28% among people who cycled three hours per week,7 while another found that the risk of premature death from all causes was decreased by 22% among people who walked 29 minutes every day.8
Traffic – a Major Source of Air Pollution and Health Impacts
The transportation sector in Canada is a significant source of air pollution.9 In the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) alone, traffic-related air pollution is responsible for approximately 700 premature deaths and 2,800 hospital admissions, each year.10
Several modelling studies suggest that traffic-related air pollution, and its related health impacts, can be reduced substantially when short vehicle trips are replaced with active travel. For example, it has been estimated that 31.3 million people living in the Midwestern United States could gain $3.6 billion in air quality-related health benefits and $3.75 billion in physical activity related health benefits, each year, if all vehicle trips that were eight kilometres or less were eliminated, and half of those trips were replaced by cycling.11
Concerns have been expressed about the exposure to air pollution that cyclists can experience when travelling along roadways. Several studies have concluded that, while cycling in traffic increases the exposure of cyclists to air pollution, the health benefits gained from the physical activity far outweigh the health risks posed by their increased exposure to air pollution in all but a few countries that have exceptionally high levels of air pollution.12
Active Travel Needs to be Safe
Studies from several countries have found that the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured decreases when more people cycle.13 This pattern is attributed to the greater visibility of cyclists and increased awareness among drivers when the number of cyclists is high. The installation of separated bike lanes and cycle tracks can reduce injuries to cyclists and increase a sense of safety among reluctant cyclists.14 For pedestrians, reduced vehicle speeds, the separation of pedestrians from vehicles, and increased visibility of pedestrians, are the factors associated with the reduced risk of vehicle-related collisions.15
Active Travel can Reduce Health Inequities
A number of groups within Canada – such as lower-income populations, newcomers, racial minorities, Indigenous Peoples, and people with health challenges – experience higher rates of illness, chronic diseases, and premature deaths because of social disadvantages such as low-paying jobs.16 The walkability of neighbourhoods is expected to have a greater impact on the health and well-being of these groups because they are less likely to own a vehicle and more likely to rely upon local shops, active travel and public transit for transportation.17
A number of studies suggest that people who live in more walkable neighbourhoods, walk and cycle more for utilitarian purposes,18,19 are less likely to be obese,20 and are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.21 One study conducted in Toronto found that newcomers living in lower-income neighbourhoods that are less walkable in design, were three times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than newcomers living in high-income neighbourhoods that are highly walkable.22
When lower-income neighbourhoods are more walkable in their design, and serviced by efficient public transit, social and health inequities can be reduced because those who cannot afford one or more automobiles have greater access to jobs, health services, grocery stores and recreational facilities.23 This is also true for those who cannot drive because of age or ability.
Active Travel Can Reduce Climate Emissions
In order to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that all countries must reduce climate emissions by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.24 In Canada, the transportation sector is the second leading source of climate emissions, responsible for about one quarter of all emissions.25
People who live in more walkable neighbourhoods, walk and cycle more for utilitarian purposes.26 A new study that followed 4,000 people who made 10,000 journal entries, found that people who cycle on a daily basis had 84% lower carbon emissions from their daily travel than those who didn’t. When the life cycle of each travel mode was compared, taking into account the carbon generated by making the vehicle, fuelling it and disposing of it, the same study found that carbon emissions from cycling can be more than 30 times lower for each trip than driving a fossil fuel car, and about ten times lower than driving an electric one. 27
Modelling studies have found that in large urban centres expecting significant population growth, an active travel strategy, when combined with investments in public transit, road pricing, and improvements in the built environment, can substantially reduce vehicle kilometres travelled and GHG emissions.28 For example, a California study estimated that an ambitious cycling-focused strategy could reduce climate emissions from passenger vehicles by 8% by 2040.29
Built Environment Needs to Foster Active Travel
The design of a community – or the built environment – shapes the way people travel. Highly “walkable neighbourhoods” have higher rates of walking and cycling and lower rates of car use.30 The walkability of a neighbourhood can be characterized by its population density, dwelling density, street design, and land use diversity.31 Studies have found that people walk and cycle more, and drive less, when their neighbourhoods have the following characteristics:
• Fairly high population or job densities – People will walk and cycle more when their neighbourhoods have higher densities that can support local businesses and efficient transit service.
• A rich diversity of land uses – People will walk and cycle more when their neighbourhoods have stores, restaurants, and community services located in close proximity to their homes.
• Supportive street designs – People will walk more when streets are designed in a grid pattern, which makes it easy and efficient to reach local destinations; when there are sidewalks, crosswalks, good street lighting, and street furniture to make walking safe, easy and pleasant. People will cycle more if there are separated bike lanes or safe bike paths.
• Transit stops within a short distance – People will walk or cycle more if transit stops are less than 10 minutes from their homes and workplaces, particularly if transit can deliver them to popular destinations.32,29
Prepared by Kim Perrotta, CHASE, November 9, 2021.
Adapted from the Active Travel Backgrounder – Invest in active travel to create healthy, green & just communities – developed by CHASE with the CPHA and the OPHA in Feb. 2021.
- Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). 2011. Benefits of Physical Activity.
- Janssen I. 2012. Health care costs of physical inactivity in Canadian adults. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. June 6.
- Bingham PB. 2009. Physical Activity and Mental Health Literature Review.
- Colley RC et al. 2011. Physical activity of Canadian adults: accelerometer results from the 2007 to 2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey.” Health reports 22.1
- Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. 1996. Progress in Prevention: Barriers to physical activity.
- Celis-Morales CA et al. 2017. Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 357:j1456
- Andersen LB, Schnohr P, Schroll M, Hein HO. 2000. All-cause mortality associated with physical activity during leisure time, work, sports, and cycling to work. Arch Intern Med 2000; 160(11):1621-1628.
- Hamer M, Chida Y. Walking and primary prevention: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2008, 42:238–243
- Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2016. Air Pollutant Emissions from the Transportation Sector.
- Medical Officers of Health in the GTHA. 2014. Improving Health by Design in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area.
- Grabow M, Spak S, Holloway T, Stone Jr B, Menick A, Patz J. 2011. Air Quality and Exercise-Related Health Benefits from Reduced Car Travel in the Midwestern United States, Environmental Health Perspectives. November
- Tanio M et al. 2016. Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking? Preventive Medicine. Vol. 87. June
- Woodcock J, Edwards P, Tonne C, et al. 2009. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhousegas emissions: urban land transport. Lancet, 374 (9705), pp. 1930–1943
- Toronto Public Health. 2012. Road to Health: Improving Walking and Cycling in Toronto. April.
- Retting RA, Ferguson SA, McCartt AT. 2003. A Review of Evidence-Based Traffic Engineering Measures Designed to Reduce Pedestrian-Motor Vehicle Crashes. Am J of Public Health. Vol 93(9)
- Public Health Agency of Canada, Pan-Canadian Public Health Network, Statistics Canada, and the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
- Key Health Inequalities in Canada report/Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Data Tool. Frank LD, Engelke P, & Schmid T. (2003) Health and community design: the impact of the built environment on physical activity. Island Press.
- Thielman J et al. 2016. Residents of highly walkable neighbourhoods in Canadian urban areas do substantially more physical activity: a cross-sectional analysis. CMAJ Open. Oct-Dec; 4(4): E720–E728.
- Toronto Public Health. 2012. The walkable city: neighbourhood design and preferences, travel choices and health. Kim Perrotta, Monica Campbell, Sean Chirrey, Larry Frank, Jim Chapman.
- Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario), Thomas K, Manson H, Moloughney B, Thielman J. Evidence brief: Neighbourhood walkability and body mass in urban areas. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario; 2017
- Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario). 2018. Evidence brief: Neighbourhood walkability and type 2 diabetes. Prepared by Kiflen R, Thielman J, Manson H. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario; 2018.
- Booth G et al. 2013. Unwalkable Neighborhoods, Poverty, and the Risk of Diabetes Among Recent Immigrants to Canada Compared With Long-Term Residents. Diabetes Care.
- World Health Organization (WHO). 2011. Health co-benefits of climate change mitigation – Transport Sector. 24 Watts N et al. 2020.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2018. Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments.
- Canada, 2016. Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Development Strategy. Federal Department of Environment and Climate Change.
- David Suzuki Foundation, Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team (SFU) and Navius Research. 2019. Shifting Gears: Climate Solution for Transportation in Cities. Metro Vancouver Case Study. 75 pages.
- Brand C. et al. 2021. The climate change mitigation effects of daily active travel in cities. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment. Volume 93, April 2021, 102764
- Maizlish L. et al., 2017 as cited by David Suzuki Foundation, Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team (SFU) and Navius Research. 2019. Shifting Gears: Climate Solution for Transportation in Cities. Metro Vancouver Case Study. 75 pages
- Sallis JF et al. 2016; Saelens BE and Handy SL. 2008 as cited by Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario). 2018. Evidence brief: Neighbourhood walkability and Type 2 diabetes. Prepared by Kiflen R, Thielman J, Manson H. Toronto, Ontario.
- Booth G et al. 2013. Unwalkable Neighborhoods, Poverty, and the Risk of Diabetes Among Recent Immigrants to Canada Compared Compared with Long-Term Residents. Diabetes Care.
- McKibbin, Matthew. 2011; Toronto Public Health, 2014; Dunn et al. 2009; Ewing and Cervero. 2010 as cited by Daniel K. and Perrotta K. 2017. Prescribing Active Travel for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet: A Toolkit for Health Professionals. Prepared for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).
- Fraser SD, & Lock K. 2011. Cycling for transport and public health: A systematic review of the effect of the environment on cycling. European Journal of Public Health, 21(6), 738-743.