man riding a bicycle in a bike lane, next to a tram

Mastering mobility: understanding the health benefits of active mobility

In an era defined by the drive towards decarbonised transportation, active mobility is often highlighted as a crucial part of the solution. But active mobility, which encompasses modes of human-powered transportation such as walking, cycling, skateboarding, rollerblading, running, etc; is more than just a way of getting from one place to another sustainably. Active mobility not only helps to decarbonise transportation, but also has numerous health benefits; acting as a pathway to improved physical, mental and social well-being; both individually and collectively.

Environmental improvements for better physical health

As active mobility helps reduce reliance on motorised transport, it is in turn a contributor to greater environmental sustainability. With increased participation in active mobility modalities, emissions are cut, and air pollution is reduced. As such, active mobility is often considered the most sustainable form of personal transport.

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions

A 2021 study published in Transportation Research found that the average person who shifted from car use to cycling decreased lifecycle CO2 emissions by 3.2 kilogrammes of CO2 per day. Additionally, a 2011 study from the European Cyclists’ Federation supports this data, finding that a 10% increase in cycling could lead to a 5-6% reduction in urban transport emissions. This impact contributes to greater public health through the positive knock-on effects of improved air quality.

Reducing noise pollution

In addition to air quality improvements, noise pollution stemming from motorised traffic has potential for reduction with the uptake of active mobility. One in five European residents are exposed to long-term noise levels that are harmful to their health, with a great share stemming from transport noise. With wider adoption of active modalities, noise pollution can be mitigated to reach the EU’s Zero Pollution Plan for 2050’s goal of reducing the share of people chronically disturbed by transport noise by 30% in the next six years.

Direct physical benefits of active mobility

According to the World Health Organisation, physical inactivity is a primary risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, which are the leading global cause of death, claiming an estimated 17.9 million lives each year.

However, engaging in regular physical activity, such as walking or cycling, can mitigate this risk and have measurable and direct positive impact. In fact, a large-scale study in The Lancet followed more than 400,000 individuals over eight years and found that those who engaged in any form of moderate-intensity physical activity had a 20-30% lower risk of premature death compared to inactive individuals.

Walking towards greater cardiovascular health

A 2023 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found a strong correlation between walking and cardiovascular health. The analysis of over 225,000 people from 17 different studies around the world concluded that the more you walk, the greater the health benefits. Professor Maciej Banach, lead researcher on the study explained “The more you walk, the better… We found that this applied to both men and women, irrespective of age, and irrespective of whether you live in a temperate, sub-tropical or sub-polar region of the world, or a region with a mixture of climates.”

Cycling to reduced heart disease risks

The active mobility mode of cycling has also shown significant cardiovascular benefits. Research from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, which followed over 20,000 people for 14 years, revealed that regular cyclists had a 30% lower risk of heart disease than non-cyclists. These findings underscore the impact that choosing active mobility can have on heart health.

Increasing longevity and preventing chronic diseases

In addition to improved cardiovascular health, active mobility also contributes to increased longevity and the prevention of chronic diseases such as type two diabetes and cancer while also improving bone density and strength.

The European Association for the Study of Diabetes states that engaging in physical activity can improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels, thus reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, the European Code Against Cancer notes that regular physical activity lowers the risk of colon, breast and endometrial cancers.

The benefits of active mobility extend to musculoskeletal health. The International Osteoporosis Foundation states that regular weight-bearing physical activity, such as walking, can help maintain bone density and strengthen muscles, while decreasing the likelihood of osteoporosis-related fractures, especially in postmenopausal women. Cycling, while not a weight-bearing exercise, works to maintain and enhance muscle strength and joint flexibility. A 2020 study published in SAGE Open Medicine Journal found that regular cycling can improve joint function and reduce symptoms of arthritis, making it an ideal mode of active mobility for older adults and those with joint conditions.

Mental health and social inclusion

Beyond physical health, active mobility offers significant positive impacts on mental health and emotional well-being. According to data provided by the European Union, over 25 million people are affected by anxiety disorders, and 21 million people are affected by depressive disorders. Additionally, a Eurobarometer survey conducted in June 2023 found that 46% of Europeans had experienced emotional or psychosocial problems (such as feeling depressed or anxious) within the previous 12 months. Though these are complex and multifaceted mental health conditions, engaging in physical activity has been evidenced to mitigate these effects.

A systematic review published in JAMA Psychiatry found that individuals engaging in regular physical activity reduced depressive episodes by up to 25%, compared to inactive individuals, and a 2018 meta-analysis of relevant studies found that physical activity was linked to 17% decrease in the likelihood of developing depression. As engaging in active mobility can produce and release endorphins in the brain, boosting the healthy levels of endorphins can help individuals to deal with symptoms of anxiety or depression, enhance mood and improve overall mental health.

Furthermore, engaging in active mobility greatly enhances social interactions and community engagement by creating opportunities for people to connect in public spaces and on city streets. When individuals walk or cycle, they are more likely to encounter neighbours and engage in spontaneous conversations and moments of connection, strengthening bonds and fostering a sense of belonging.

Additionally, there are increasingly numerous community-oriented initiatives enabling active mobility that can improve social cohesion. From initiatives for schoolchildren like Nudgd’s platform that incentivises active mobility in commutes to school and ‘bike buses/trains’ that get kids together for safer cycling; to Bike Buddy communities and projects that enable elderly people and those with limited mobility to participate in active modes, these initiatives all work to foster strong community ties.

Active mobility for more liveable cities

The increased uptake of active mobility fosters a positive feedback loop: as more people choose to walk or cycle, public spaces become more inclusive and inviting, encouraging even greater participation. Engaging in active mobility not only creates positive individual health impacts: enhancing cardiovascular health, strengthening bones, and improving mental health; but also improves environmental conditions and enhances social cohesion for healthier and more sustainable cities. By adopting active mobility, individuals can harness these health benefits and contribute to a healthier and longer life for themselves and their communities.