“We have a duty to our children to make an active lifestyle more accessible”
Startling evidence presented by healthcare experts at the Design Council’s Active by Design Summit shows that the UK’s obesity pandemic is still on the rise, with 68% of men and 58% of women now overweight or obese in England alone. The Design Council’s CEO John Mathers, made a point of welcoming the recent £800m investment in sport by the government, but warned that we must also consider those who don’t enjoy competitive sport and provide easy alternatives for activity.
“This is where the design of neighbourhoods, streets, play spaces and buildings comes in to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to lead an active, healthy life. Careful design can change the way we lead our daily lives, helping walking, cycling and outdoor play to be the first choice for most people.”
The one-day summit brought together local council representatives, public health professionals, fitness experts, architects, town planners and game designers to tackle the issue of physical inactivity in the UK and provide multiple viewpoints on the problem. There is clearly no single solution to increasing people’s activity levels but the Summit showed how shifts in behaviour, wellbeing and health could be achieved through a range of changes to our neighbourhoods, streets and buildings.
Claire McDonald, a Behaviour Change Specialist for the NHS, showed that although sport is an effective way to be active for those with a competitive nature, for people not good at a particular sport, there is no incentive to continue playing.
Mike Loosemore, Consultant in Sport and Exercise for the NHS feels that it’s too easy to be inactive. Loosemore went on to explain that conserving energy by not moving is a normal human response to having basic needs of food and shelter met and therefore our environments must be designed to promote a more active lifestyle.
Riccardo Marini, architect at Gehl Architects, called for an “overhaul” of the planning system so that walking and cycling are at the heart of every new development to be built across the country. Promoting activity, he argued, should be in designers’ and developers’ minds from the outset of a project, with the end goal to increase ‘positive human contact’ and naturally increase activity levels.
Other major issues such as inactivity at work, the dominance of cars in our streets and the appeal of sedentary entertainment like computer games, were also raised at the summit. The cross-sector consensus was our built environment must be shaped in a way that normal daily life involves more physical activity, such as walking or cycling and taking the stairs. This included the need for shops, services, schools and workplaces to be accessible from where people live, and for streets to be civilised, appealing and people-centred is clear.
Evidence was presented that low cardio-respiratory fitness is now the biggest single influence on mortality in the UK, and that children today are expected to die five years younger than their parents due to poor lifestyle. “Obesity is the new smoking” claimed Ann Marie Connolly, Director of Health Equity and Impact at Health England. Connolly said it was not enough to adjust eating habits or increase gym attendance; the mindset of the nation towards physical activity “needs to change”.
Research shows that being physically active reduces heart disease by 40%, strokes by 27%, diabetes by 50%, high blood pressure by 50%, colon cancer by 60% and Alzheimer’s by a third. Currently 30% of people in the UK do less than 30 minutes activity a week when the recommended amount is 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Examples from around the world, both large and small, were cited as possible solutions, such as secure on-street bike storage in residential areas, expansion of cycling lanes, pop-up parks, ‘street gyms’, workplace design that encourages stair use and even exercise-promoting apps such as ‘Zombies, Run’.
The Design Council will continue to work with designers, architects, healthcare professionals and local government to create ideas to help solve this issue. The Summit highlighted the commitment of professionals from a wide range of fields to tackling the problem of inactivity through the way we shape our environment. The Active by Design programme will now look to share good practice and help neighbourhoods, towns and cities across the UK become places where more and more people are active and healthy.