Taking the first steps to a healthy state

WE can all do our part to rid Scotland of its reputation as the sick man of Europe, whether on foot or on a bike, writes Helen Todd

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 the election, Ramblers Scotland believes there is a growing public recognition of the need for one change which no political party is putting centre stage, but which we desperately need to see addressed – the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles.

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 more than 40 diseases, such as heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression and dementia.

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Overall this is leading to a poorer quality of life than we should expect, and a high cost to the NHS.

We can address this 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 tax.

Are we ready to get more active? We see three ways to tip the balance, if there is serious government commitment.

Firstly, the National Walking Strategy provides a great opportunity to deliver change. The action plan is being developed but this can’t be delivered 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, taking up pedometer challenges and encouraging lunchtime walks. Head teachers could work with the local authorities to make it quick and easy for every pupil to arrive at school on foot or by bike using safe routes. All government bodies and the NHS can lead by example and become active workforces, and the voluntary sector should be properly funded to ensure this initiative reaches all parts of society.

The second change is to reprioritise our transport spending. The new transport minister, Derek Mackay, says all the right things about active travel, but will serious investment follow? Overall, just 2 per cent of the national transport budget is currently spent on active travel so there’s clearly room for improvement. Mr Mackay could look to Edinburgh, which spends 8 per cent of its transport budget 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.

And thirdly, there needs to be investment in our outdoor recreation sector. The greatest potential for inspiring people to be more active has to be Scotland’s world-renowned natural heritage. Why spend your weekend on a treadmill in the gym when you could get out and explore 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 on the bike or 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. Schools could all ensure every child has seen the view from Ben Lomond or Lochnagar. 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 £1.4 billion per year, but has potential to grow even bigger. And evidence shows that creating path networks creates jobs, first in their construction and then through increased footfall in nearby shops and cafes.

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. We currently have 6,500 members. We may still have a mountain to climb here, but even the longest journey starts with a single footstep!

• Helen Todd is campaigns and policy manager for Ramblers Scotland www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland.aspx