In an unprecedented move, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has issued a set of guidelines that aim to make local environments more tailored to physical activity.

As the Institute stresses, the benefits of exercise and physical activity on health are enormous, and can help prevent or manage a whole menu of diseases, such heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and obesity.

And yet, research shows that the UK is basically still a nation of couch potatoes, with around two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women not achieving the recommended level of activity for good health.

To help address the problem, the Institute has highlighted environmental factors it says need to be tackled to nurture more active lifestyles, in a rather different approach to boosting the health of the nation and reducing some of the strain on the National Health Service’s already-stretched resources.

NICE’s recommendations are directed far beyond the NHS and local authorities, targeting all those who have any degree of responsibility for a built or natural environment, such as planners, transport authorities, building managers and architects.

The Institute has called for: planning applications for new developments to prioritise the need for people to be physically active as a routine part of their daily lives; giving pedestrians, cyclists and other modes of transport that involve physical activity the highest priority in street planning; linking workplaces to walking and cycling routes; and encouraging the use of staircases by making them “attractive” to use and clearly signposted.

Small changes
“We know physical activity is good for your health, but increasing levels of activity can be a challenge. But small changes to our environment such as making it easier to walk, cycle or take the stairs as part of everyday life can be enough to help people to meet the national recommended levels,” said Dr Gillian Leng, Executive Lead for the guidance.

“Every day, planners, designers and architects make decisions that affect the way people live; what we are recommending is that they should do this in a way that makes it easier for people to be physically active,” she explained.

“Local authorities and professionals in transport, planning and development will recognise that what NICE recommends as health promoting will also help make cities more human and liveable;” added NICE guidance developer Philip Insall. “This guidance should be the final argument convincing the transport sector to make walking and cycling the first priority for all local trips,” he stressed.