Germans leading the way to active old age

01 February 2012

Evidence suggests that that physically active adults aged 65 and over have higher levels of cardio-respiratory fitness and physical function than those who are inactive

It is well understood that a physically active lifestyle is important for the health and wellbeing of older people. In Start Active, Stay Active, the recent joint physical activity report, the four UK chief medical officers (CMOs) say: “The evidence is strong that physically active adults aged 65 years and over have higher levels of cardio-respiratory fitness and physical function, improved disease risk-factor profiles and lower incidence of numerous chronic non-communicable diseases than those who are inactive.”

The chief medical officers also address the balance of risk and benefit relating to a physically active lifestyle in older people. They state: “Engaging in physical activity carries very low health-and-safety risks for most older adults. In contrast, the risk of poor health as a result of inactivity are very high.”

Active travel – choosing to walk and/or cycle for day-to-day journeys – might not be the first form of physical activity to come to mind for many, but it should be. The four CMOs say: “For most people, the easiest and most acceptable forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into everyday life. Examples include walking or cycling instead of travelling by car, bus or train.”

In the UK, transport, planning and public health policies are moving towards the creation of physical and cultural environments more conducive to active travel. However, countries which lead the way in this field are already achieving remarkable walking and cycling levels.

Recent work published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine compares national travel-survey data from Germany and the USA. Among many striking figures is that 34.3% of Germans aged 65 and over are achieving 30 minutes a day of physical activity through walking and/or cycling. UK data are not perfectly comparable, but we do not currently approach the German level.

If a brilliant new initiative promised to get more than a third of over-64s doing 30 minutes a day of physical activity, we would immediately make it a central plank of policy. I believe public health professionals should view active travel in this light, and lobby national and local transport authorities to seize the health dividend achievable just by bringing our walking and cycling infrastructure up to German standards.

By Philip Insall is Director of Health at Sustrans - www.sustrans.org.uk

People’s Health Trust has funded several Sustrans Active Travel projects in local society lottery areas across the country. One of the first of these was in HealthBright in Solihull and Birmingham.

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