World Mental Health Day 2021: The link between active travel and mental health

10 Oct 2021
Hugo Mills

World Mental Health Day 2021: The link between active travel and mental health

At C3, we’re dedicated to helping people make three fundamental changes to their lives: 

  • Stop using tobacco 
  • Approve their diet 
  • Take more physical exercise 

All of these habitual changes are crucial to helping prevent the 71% of deaths around the world caused by non-communicable diseases every year.  

Exercise 

There is a reason sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl described exercise as a miracle drug in 2013. The physical health benefits are well-documented and unparalleled. Regular exercise slows the loss of bone density in older adults, decreasing risk of hip fractures. It decreases the risk of several cancers including lung, colon, breast, oesophagus and kidney. It lowers blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and it reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome 

Mental Health 

The mental health charity Mind estimates that one in four people will experience mental ill-health each year and much though exercise benefits us physically, research also demonstrates its considerable positive effect on our mental health. The Mental Health Foundation cites stress reduction, increased confidence and improved focus as clear benefits of exercise. Physical activity can also reduce the risk of depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s and can enhance sleep quality, thus reducing levels of anxiety and fatigue.  

Active Travel 

The British Medical Journal has published research showing that people who cycle regularly have a significantly lower risk of feeling stressed. Other studies show a positive relationship between active commuting (as a combination of both walking and cycling) and mental health. In addition, there are external factors which impact on mental wellbeing related to physical activity. This includes, for example, living in an area with significant access or exposure to green spaces as this has a lasting positive effect on mental wellbeing for all ages and socio-economic groups.  

UK walking and cycling charity Sustrans have published an Active Travel Toolbox, full of various guides, tools and case studies to help local authorities and their partners make the case for walking and cycling schemes including the economic case, housing growth and planning and health resources. One of these focuses particularly on the relationship between mental health and active travel. They write: “Most studies of the commute and stress find that active travel, followed by public transport use are the least stressful modes and that active travel is often reported as a positive experience in terms of stress management”.  

“Explanatory factors include desirable physical exercise from walking and cycling, as well as that short commutes provide a buffer between the work and private spheres. Nonetheless, evidence indicates that 30 minutes or more round trip commuting either on foot or by bicycle has a significant positive effect on mental health, most notably for men.” 

C3’s Experience 

As part of our work, C3 often participates in community health interventions. Such interventions are sadly often imposed on communities, whereas evidence shows that actively engaging communities in evaluating the challenges and opportunities they face in their day-to-day lives leads to more effective, longer-lasting solutions. 

Using the innovative, evidence-based approach known as CHESS, developed by our Global Health Associate Dr. Denise Stephens, C3 shifts decision-making to local communities by engaging them as ‘citizen scientists’ in an investigation about their health and the built environment (e.g., the shops, restaurants and parks in their neighbourhood). CHESS includes a mobile tool that equips local communities in identifying and mapping the barriers they face every day when making choices about diet, activity and healthy living. 

Active travel is consistently identified by communities we work with as something they want to do more of. The built environment is often an impediment, particularly in areas of higher deprivation, as identified by the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. The clear benefits to health, both physical and mental, and the consistent enthusiasm from community-members shows us that despite the obstacles, our work is taking us in the right direction. 

Find out more about CHESS here. 

To seek help for a mental health problem, find more information here.