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Physical activity, walking and wellbeing

Interview with Nanette Mutrie of the University of Edinburgh to learn more about how physical activity, especially walking, can improve wellbeing.
Walking has been identified as a perfect exercise for health with many benefits, also for well-being more widely. I am going to talk to Professor Nanette Mutrie, who’s Chair in Physical Activity for Health at the University of Edinburgh, to learn more about how walking and physical activity can improve our wellbeing. Hi Nanette. Good to see you. How are you today? I’m good. How are you today? Yeah, I’m fine. I have a few questions for you about physical activity and walking. OK. So in what ways is walking good for wellbeing? Great question. I think maybe the activity of walking has been underestimated for its benefits to wellbeing.
First of all, we’re being physically active when we walk, and we have very good evidence now that being physically active is good for our mental and physical wellbeing. But more important than that for many people is to get out mostly in the fresh air. And people really appreciate the fresh air. They seem to feel that’s good for their wellbeing. And we’re often in green spaces, as we are here today, walking through a bit of a meadow. The green space itself gives us a sense of wellbeing. And finally, you know, you’re out in your community when you’re walking. You’re meeting people like we met today. You see other people.
You feel connected to the things that are going on around about you. All of that is good for our wellbeing.
So how much physical activity should we be aiming for, like, per week or per day? That’s another really good question. The answer is that we need to do around about two and a half hours over the week to gain the physical and mental health benefits that we know being physically active can give us. Now that might sound like a lot, but there’s two really good points to this. First, walking is a way in which most people can achieve that two and a half hours. And some people think of it in daily amounts, like every working day, if you walk 30 minutes, you would achieve your two and a half hours.
But the other piece of good news is that even over the course of a day, you can accumulate those minutes. So short walks with the dog, taking the kids to school on foot, going to the shops on foot, taking a 10-minute walk to the bus or the train all adds together. So some days will be more active than others and taking every active choice we can make, like walking up the steps instead of the escalators, adds to those minutes of physical activity. So what can governments do? What can policy and planning do in order for us to be more physically active?
Globally, there’s been a lot of concern that we don’t yet know what’s best to do to promote physical activity but quite recently, a global call to action called the Toronto Charter has given us a lot of guidance here. And experts have identified seven best investments that governments and policymakers can make in order to increase their nation’s physical activity levels. Now I don’t want to rehearse all seven of them, so the one thing I would pick out that’s an easy target for government and policymakers is infrastructure.
For example, for walking, we need safe pavements that are well maintained, good street lighting, good signposting of distance and time from bus stations or railway stations, and nice places to walk, routes through parks and accessible places around cities and urban areas. And for cycling, we need nice places to store our bikes that are safe and out of the weather. And more importantly, cycle lanes, both on the streets and off roads because people need to feel confident they won’t be involved in accidents to encourage cycling.
And finally, in terms of infrastructure, governments, policymakers, local authorities need to work hard to make the available sport and leisure facilities, such as swimming pools, easy to access and cheap enough for everyone to do so. So how well is Scotland doing in terms of implementing a physical activity policy? Scotland has a very good physical activity policy, which has been in existence for about 15 years. And it’s been applauded around the world as a good example of how we might go about creating policy to help a nation increase physical activity levels.
We’ve also more recently got a very good outcomes framework, which tries to target six areas where we can see progress in different ways, such as the number of children getting physical education in school or any change in the percentage of the population that has very low activity, or changes in infrastructure, or changes in sport performance. And that can be found on the Active Scotland division of the Scottish government’s website. However, we’re not seeing a huge increase in physical activity, the acid test of policy. We have seen some increases, but in the last five years, by any measurement, we’re a bit stagnant with the percentage of the population who are active.
It’s over 60%, but it’s been that way for some years. So what I think that needs to happen there is that we’re implementing that policy better at scale across all the areas we want to see progress, at every area in Scotland. And so it’s the implementation of the policy that now needs to be given attention. And the lesson to be learned is that it takes time for a policy to be understood and embedded, and then implemented. Such changes don’t happen overnight. And so I remain optimistic that in the next five years or so, we will see further increases in the nation’s physical activity levels, and that will make Scotland an even better example of policy into practise.
Thank you very much for this conversation, Nanette. I’ve enjoyed it very much, Elke. Thank you for inviting me.

Being physically active is seen as key for our wellbeing. However, many people struggle to fit physical exercise into their busy daily schedules and our environments are sometimes not that conducive to physical activity or active travel.

We talk to Professor Nanette Mutrie, Chair in Physical Activity for Health at the University of Edinburgh, to learn more about how walking can improve wellbeing, how we can add more physical activity into our lives and what planners and policy makers can do to help us meet the recommended physical activity targets.

Using the comment function, tell us how easy you find it to be physically active in the place you live in or in the job you do. What would you need to change yourself and what would planning need to do to make it more tempting to be more physically active? Do you perhaps know of an example of a city where active travel has become the first choice for getting around?

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