Helen Todd: the dangers of sedentary lifestyles

Scotland is a country with a huge appetite for political engagement and a mood for change, from whichever part of the political spectrum you favour. But away from politics, Ramblers Scotland believes there is a growing public recognition of the need for one change which no political party is putting centre stage – the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles.

Time to change

Scotland now has the lowest life expectancy of any country in Western Europe, and evidence is mounting of the role physical inactivity plays in keeping us at the bottom of the pile. Inactivity increases our risks of developing over 40 diseases, such as heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia. Overall this is leading to a poorer quality of life than we should expect, and a high cost to the NHS. Ramblers members may be pretty active people in general, but I suspect most of us could do more.

Addressing inactivity

We can address this issue through a change in political priorities and investment. The benefits to be gained are immense: a more productive and healthy workforce, a better environment and quality of life, and even a more socially just society with reduced health inequalities across the board.

So can we make this change in our behaviour as a society? With a little encouragement it’s possible to effect change almost overnight when the time is right; witness the widespread acceptance of the smoking ban and plastic bag charge. Are we ready to get more active? I see three ways to tip the balance, if there is serious government commitment, and this will be the focus of our forthcoming manifesto for the 2016 Scottish elections.

National Walking Strategy

Firstly, the National Walking Strategy provides a great opportunity to deliver change, but this can’t be done through government bodies alone; there needs to be engagement throughout civic society if a step change is to happen, backed up by serious investment. Employers could support a culture of activity at work – making commuting by bike attractive, and encouraging lunchtime walks. Head teachers could work with the local authorities to make it quick and easy for pupils to arrive at school on foot or by bike using safe routes. In addition, the voluntary sector should be properly funded to ensure this initiative reaches all parts of society. I’m sure many Ramblers members would be keen to play their part in encouraging more people in their local area to get walking more often.

Active travel

The second change is to reprioritise our transport spending. The government says all the right things, but will serious investment in walking and cycling follow? Overall, just 2% of the national transport budget is currently spent on active travel so there’s clearly room for improvement. Edinburgh is showing the way, with 8% of its transport budget spent encouraging people to get out of their cars. The results are beginning to show that it’s working, with more walking and cycling, more use of public transport and less use of private cars.

Get inspired by the outdoors

Finally, there needs to be investment in our outdoor recreation sector. Ramblers members are well aware that Scotland’s world-renowned natural heritage is a fantastic inspiration for getting people active, with our wild landscapes, our coastal trails and ancient woodlands. There’s no better way of spending time with your friends and family, or just being by yourself, than getting into your walking boots, and we have access rights which form a firm foundation for these activities. Everyone in Scotland should aspire to climb Ben Nevis or walk the West Highland Way in their lifetimes. But to encourage more people to get out and about we need well-maintained paths and bridges, plus signs and promotional information. We also need to offer training so that people can develop the skills to do these activities safely while also respecting the natural world. And there are sound economic reasons for doing this, beyond the health improvements. Nature based tourism is worth around £1.4bn per year, but has potential to grow even bigger.

Measures of success

How will we know when we’ve succeeded? One measure will be the membership of outdoor recreation organisations. In Norway, where the outdoor ethos is widely embedded, the equivalent organisation to Ramblers Scotland, DNT, has 240,000 members. With a similar population, we have 6,500 members in Scotland. We may still have a mountain to climb here, but even the longest journey starts with a single footstep!

Helen Todd is the campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. Read more about Helen's adventures or tweet her @helenrambler.