If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure’.
Sir Liam Donaldson, former Chief Medical Officer (England) 

Inspired by the view of former Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, we set out to explore the potential benefits of a physically active first or last mile with our friends at Run Friendly and Leeds University. Our findings are drawn from published academic studies and our own surveys.


Benefit 1: More physical activity

One analysis of 3,300 North American commuters, and another of 3,600 English commuters, who had participated in nationally representative travel surveys found that people who travel by public transport (trains, buses and trams) on average accumulate at least 20 minutes of physical activity each day just as part of their regular journey.

In the English study, it was train commuters who accumulated the most physical activity – on average 28 minutes each day. Since the CMO and WHO physical activity guidelines state that adults should aim to achieve thirty minutes of brisk walking on five days per week, this study demonstrates the ease with which people can meet those guidelines on their daily commute alone.

Considering that these two studies and all other comparable studies have not differentiated between how people travelled to and from the railway station, it thus seems probable that people who exclusively used active modes would easily exceed the physical activity levels recommended in the guidelines.

Some other studies also indicate that when people start doing more active travel, they do not offset this by reducing the physical activity done elsewhere in their lives, such as sports, running or walking during leisure time. One study of 1,600 British adults, for example, showed that increased active travel was associated with an increase in overall physical activity levels.

In the survey component of our research, at least two-thirds of those who were active during the first & last miles stated that exercising as part of their commute was an important consideration. Of all three active modes (walking, cycling, running), it was cyclists who were the most likely to state exercise as an important factor in their mode choice decision (83%).


Benefit 2: Better Physical Health

Physical inactivity is associated with at least twenty chronic health conditions including coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke, and identified by the WHO as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. It is also a significant determinant of obesity, since physical activity is a key determinant of energy expenditure.

There is strong evidence to show that people of all ages can gain substantial health benefits by meeting the CMO and WHO physical activity guidelines. This includes a reduced risk of death, equivalent to a 30% risk reduction for the most active people compared with the least active. Even small increases in physical activity among those who are the least active can bring substantial benefits.

In addition to this general evidence on the health benefits of physical activity, some studies have also linked these health benefits directly to increased active travel, including during the first and last miles.

One study published in the British Medical Journal analysed around five years’ worth of data on 260,000 British commuters. The researchers at the University of Glasgow showed that commuters who combined cycling with non-active modes (assumed to be mainly public transport) had a reduced likelihood of a new cancer diagnosis or death (by any cause) when compared to commuters who did not use any active travel modes (i.e. people who drove the first & last miles to access public transport, or who drove for the whole journey).

A further study of 360,000 people showed that, among regular commuters, more active patterns of travel compared with exclusive car use were associated with an 11% lower relative risk of developing heart disease or stroke and a 30% lower relative risk of death from heart disease or stroke. The association was even stronger when all forms of travel, both commuting and everyday travel, were included in the analysis.

Benefit 3: Improved wellbeing and mental health

Evidence shows that physical activity is a determinant of wellbeing, and can increase positive mood and self-esteem, and reduce anxiety and stress. Some studies suggest that even small amounts of physical activity can lead to significant benefits. One study, for example, showed that a 10 minute brisk walk can increase mental alertness, energy and positive mood.

Physical activity is also reported to prevent the development of mental health problems as well as improve quality of life for people experiencing mental health problems. 

A small number of studies have also examined whether these benefits can be accrued specifically through walking and cycling for travel. The UEA study described in the Introduction, for example, showed that the likelihood of reporting being constantly under strain or unable to concentrate was at least 13% higher when commuters drove to work, compared to when they walked or cycled. A further study of 800 commuters in Cambridge showed that people who maintained cycling over a one year period had better mental wellbeing than commuters who did not cycle to work. Furthermore, the cycle commuters also reported lower sickness absence equivalent to one less day per year. However, the study did not identify comparable benefits for people who walked to work.

In the survey component of the research, the majority of commuters who used active modes agreed or strongly agreed that the first or last miles were relaxing (55% of walkers and 67% of cyclists) and enjoyable. At least one third agreed or strongly agreed with the statements that they enjoyed the journey because it gave them time and space to think about the day (54% of walkers, 36% of cyclists and 39% of runners) and that they found the active first or last miles to be more enjoyable than the train journey itself (38%). 17% of cyclists and walkers agreed or strongly agreed that they found the first or last miles to be stressful.

The majority of commuters who used active modes agreed or strongly agreed that the first & last miles were relaxing.

During the interview component of the research, people also said they had chosen active travel because of perceived benefits related to wellbeing. For example, a walker, a cyclist and a runner said:

A possible cause of stress during the journey to the railway station might be the lack of control over arrival time caused by traffic jams or finding a car parking space. This is partially supported by studies that have used NTS data to examine variation in journey times. They have demonstrated that, for the same journeys and individuals, commuters face greater day-to-day variation in journey times, and thus less predictability and reliability, when travelling by car compared with walking or cycling.

Read more about our active travel work and find references for the research mentioned at www.go-ahead.com/futureoftransport

Alan WaldockTransport