A smarter and healthier Australia, one step at a time

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Adj Professor John Kelly

Heart Foundation National CEO

The more things change…

While politicians’ travel hits the headlines as we move into a new year, it is easy to forget that we have several parliamentary champions of a form of transport that is cheap, efficient and - most importantly - confers significant health benefits for the individual and far-reaching economic benefits for government.

For his part, the Prime Minister has made a virtue of using ferries, trains, trams and buses (his favourite is the 389 in Sydney), demonstrating that public transport is fit for purpose, even for the busiest people with the most demanding jobs.

Every public transport journey is necessarily accompanied by walking and increased physical activity, a fact borne out by countless surveys and studies. This is why the Heart Foundation strongly promotes public transport use.

Sadly, walking can at times be neglected in considerations around transport infrastructure and urban planning. But this could – and should – change.

With chronic disease now Australia’s greatest health challenge, responsible for 90 per cent of all deaths, we should be investing more in policies and programs that promote active – not sedentary – lives.

The case is compelling. If walking were a medicine, it would be considered a wonder drug. Taken once daily for 30 to 60 minutes, walking – and physical activity more generally - has the ability to deliver astounding benefits.

Walking up to an hour a day can significantly reduce the risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease (principally heart, stroke and blood vessel disease). Walking can also help prevent dementia and some cancers.

It can also raise levels of good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, lower blood pressure, maintain lean muscle and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

And there’s more. Walking also increases life expectancy. A daily 30-minute walk is estimated to increase life span by up to 1.3 years.

On the flipside, physical inactivity is directly harmful to health.

It’s one of the ‘big five’ risk factors that make the largest contribution to the total burden of disease in Australia. Studies suggest that inactivity causes some 14,000 premature deaths and costs the economy an estimated $13bn each year.

Disturbingly, more than half of Australian adults are insufficiently active to benefit their health.

In addition to its health benefits, walking can deliver substantial social, environmental and economic boosts.

Walking and walking-friendly environments encourage social interaction, enhance community safety, and eases traffic congestion – the latter also bringing about environmental benefits.

All of which makes one wonder why we are so keen to engineer physical activity out of our daily lives. Lifts and escalators replacing stairs. Cars taking priority over pedestrians. Walking routes through towns and cities cut by roads and car parks.

It is time, surely, to start a walking revolution.

We can start by embracing walking as a key part of an active travel agenda, ensuring walking stands alongside cycling and public transport as the three key and integral parts of a bolder approach to transport.

Broad community participation must be engendered for walking in all its forms. These include organised walks, such as the free Heart Foundation Walking program, which now has almost 28,000 participants across the country.

There are positive signs from a multi-partisan perspective. The fact that the newly-appointed Federal Health Minister is such an enthusiastic advocate for physical activity gives cause for more optimism.

The Australian Government has commenced a Smart Cities program while the previous government developed a comprehensive Walking, Riding and Access to Public Transport policy.

We also have an enthusiastic Parliamentary Friendship Group for Better Cities, chaired by the Liberal’s Trent Zimmerman, Labor’s Andrew Giles and Adam Bandt from the Greens.

Clearly, good will exists on all sides. What we want to see is that good will translated into effective action to help all Australians move more and sit less.

The time has come to take some important steps.