Walking or cycling to work reduces health risks in India

Study makes case for investment in public transport, pedestrian and cycling routes

By Jyotsna Singh
Published: Wednesday 12 June 2013


People in India who walk or cycle to work are less likely to be overweight or obese, have diabetes or high blood pressure, a study has found. The findings are relevant to India considering the increasing number of people suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country.

Conducted by researchers from Imperial College London and the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), the research analysed physical activity and health information collected from almost 4,000 participants including factory employees of four cities and their siblings. “Our sample was of migrants from villages who have come to work in factories of Lucknow, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Bangalore. We called their siblings from their native place to adjust to family histories and other parameters,” says Sutapa Agrawal, epidemiologist, PHFI. The siblings primarily formed the group of respondents from rural areas.

Active travel to battle diseases

Among the respondents in rural India, 68.3 per cent bicycled and 11.9 per cent walked to work. In towns and cities, the respective figures were 15.9 per cent and 12.5 per cent. The research indicated that 25 per cent of people who walked or cycled to work were overweight. This is in striking contrast to the fact that half the people who travelled to work by private transport and 38 per cent of those who took public transport were overweight.  The study found similar patterns for rates of high blood pressure and diabetes. The results suggest that encouraging more people to use physically active modes of transport could reduce rates of crucial risk factors for many chronic diseases.

How can walking, cycling to work reduce your risk

The study states you can substantially reduce the risk of non communicable diseases if you walk or cycle to work every day. For those with hypertension, the risk of aggravating the condition is reduced by close to half.

This interactive graphic shows the risk of non communicable diseases associated with different modes of transport. The reference point for risk factor is taken at 1 for those who travel to work in a private car.

“This study highlights that walking and cycling to work is not only good for the environment but also good for personal health,” says lead author Christopher Millett, school of public health at Imperial College and visiting senior research fellow at PHFI. “People can get the exercise they need by building physical activity into their travel to work, so they don’t need to make extra time for the gym,” he adds.

Better infrastructure needed

Agrawal says that though it is already known that physical exercises reduce risk of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases, this study is important because it links NCDs to travelling. “Through the study we are asking the government to build proper infrastructure and roads to help people being physically more active. We also want environment friendly policies and reduce pollution,” she says.

Millet argues for more pedestrian- and bicycle- friendly roads. “Getting more people to use active modes of travel should be integral to strategies to maintain healthy weight and prevent diabetes and heart disease. This should include improving the safety and convenience of walking and bicycling in Indian towns and cities, and also greater investment in public transport, since this travel generally involves walking to bus or train stops,” he says.

The study on associations between active travel to work and overweight, hypertension, and diabetes in India was published in the journal PLOS medicine.



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