Walking, cycling for short trips could save billions in healthcare costs, study finds

Billions of dollars could be saved in healthcare costs if we ditched driving for trips shorter than 5 kilometres, new research released today has found.

Your playlist will load after this ad

Study co-author Anja Misdrak called it “a missed opportunity” for public health. Source: Breakfast

Study co-author Anja Misdrak, from the University of Otago, said it's suggested that trips with distances of up to 1km should be walked.

"This is the sort of distance where it would probably take people about 10 or 15 minutes to walk, so sort of to the dairy, to the coffee shop. For some people, it would be the distance of dropping the kids to school, she told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"So these aren't huge distances, and really, our study was about showing the potential for even these short trips in terms of contributing to overall physical activity."

Currently, road transport takes up 17.3 per cent of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions - and over half of the journeys are less than 5km, she said.

"We actually found that a lot of these trips are sort of 'there and back' trips. People are using their car to just go to and from the dairy, and this is really a missed opportunity in terms of public health."

Ms Misdrak said walking doesn't just improve physical health and lower greenhouse gas emissions, but also lowers the risk of heart disease, cancer and is "improving people’s mental health as well."

The study looked at one quarter of short trips under 5km made by walking and cycling.

"We found that the health gains associated with switching a quarter of those short trips are pretty equivalent to the health gains associated the annual tobacco taxing increases that we've got in place in New Zealand."

Ms Misdrak suggested for people to change their inclination towards driving by walking when the weather is nice so "when it becomes a habit, then you do it when the weather's bad as well."

"At the moment, the habit is to drive, so I think that if we start changing those habits and maybe start making some of those switches when the weather is lovely, then it sort of puts you in that frame of mind for being able to make those trips even when it is a bit drizzly or windy or the southerly's blowing through.

"Some of these health benefits will take a long time to accumulate, but there will be health benefits if we start making those changes. At the same time, we really need environments that are going to support those sorts of behaviours in terms of walking and cycling – making our own environments nicer for walking and cycling and not just being dedicated to cars."