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Why Prioritise Active Travel? The Health Reasons

Words by Dr Patrick Carrington, Lead Cancer Clinician for Trafford overseeing provision of all cancer services in Trafford hospital

First, a bit of context – I have been a doctor treating people with various diseases for around 40 years, and for over 30 years I have been a haematologist (blood specialist). Sadly, by the time people come to me, they may have severe disease, so in recent years my attention has turned from providing treatment to preventing people needing treatment.

Why Bother with Active Travel?

The main reason is for everyone to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

Sounds a bit trite, but here’s more…

What diseases can be prevented?

I treat people with leukaemia and other blood cell cancers and also manage the consequences of thrombosis as well as other problems affecting the blood. It has become increasing clear to me that many of these problems are caused by either air pollution or inactivity, so walking or cycling reduce the risk, while driving a car gives a double whammy of risk.

Patients with leukaemia have often asked me why it has happened to them and I have usually replied in very general terms that it was likely to be related to the environment. But the more specific reason is that many leukaemias are caused by benzene and other hydrocarbons emitted in engine exhaust fumes, which damage DNA in blood stem cells, ultimately leading to leukaemia. Thrombosis risk, with consequent heart disease, stroke and dementia, increases with inactivity and obesity. Indeed, although there are sometimes many causes for disease, air pollution and inactivity play key roles in all the leading causes of ill health and death.

What can I do?

Personally, I cycle to work and try to avoid traffic fumes by choosing quieter routes and holding my breath when cycling past idling cars.

At a population level, active travel can do the same. As Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner, Chris Boardman, eloquently said earlier this year in Parliament: “Pick a crisis and you’ll probably find cycling is a solution.”

So, to paraphrase Chris: if you pick a disease you’ll probably find cycling (or walking) is a solution.

What about COVID-19?

The current crisis has reminded us all that health really trumps any other consideration. So how is active travel relevant to fighting the virus?

  • It is known that exercise improves immune function and hence helps to reduce the chance of infection and reduce the severity of the disease once infected.
  • It is also clear that the greatest risk factors for dying from COVID at any given age are obesity and diabetes, which are once again diseases of inactivity (with the exception of type 1 diabetes).
  • Also high on the list is prior lung disease or ischaemic heart disease – both of which are significantly worse because of air pollution, so once again active travel is part of the solution and therefore a high priority.

Active travel can be a powerful ally as we struggle for health in this age of COVID.

We must enable it now.


Image courtesy of TfGM.

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