Lockdown, wellbeing, and walkability

Yanelle Cruz Bonilla on how the coronavirus pandemic has imposed lockdowns that have severely limited individuals’ ability to engage in activities.

Originally published on CEBM.net on 28 January 2021

Yanelle Cruz Bonilla
MPhil in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation, University of Oxford

On behalf of the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service Team
University of Oxford

Correspondence to yanelle.cruzbonilla@lincoln.ox.ac.uk

The coronavirus pandemic has imposed lockdowns that have severely limited individuals’ ability to engage many in activities such as dining out, visiting the theatre, or exercising at a gym. These lockdowns have severely limited mobility and the need to commute anywhere, as a result, cities around the world experienced significant environmental improvements and air quality increased around the world. The lack of driving, commuting, and use of public transportation have led to an increase in walking for many individuals across the world, making it apparent that more walkable cities and suburbs should be prioritized by localities around the world.

In the United States, state parks experienced a 30% to 50% increase in traffic, forcing some of the busiest state and national parks to close in the height of lockdown due to overcrowding concerns. Additionally, the demand for outdoor spaces to walk in led to a 200% increase in trail usage across the United States. The need for more compact cities and suburbs with high walkability scores has never been clearer, in addition to the demand, daily walking provides a substantial amount of physical and psychological benefits that individuals around the world can enjoy.

(Photo by Vladimir Kudinov from StockSnap)

Over the years, many studies have examined the benefits of daily walks and the evidence has shown significant physical health benefits. A study looking into the benefits of thirty-minute walks for Type 2 diabetes patients found that short and frequent walks immediately after meals reduced fasting blood glucose levels by around 10% to 12%. Another study focused on elderly men suffering from critical diseases such as heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, or cancer, as well as healthy elderly men. They found that walking at least an hour a day decreased mortality risk by 70% in elderly healthy men with and without critical diseases.

Aside from significant physical benefits, many studies have found psychological benefits. A study aiming to assess the affective and cognitive benefits of daily, brisk walks in urban environments found that participants experienced reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and time pressure. In addition, participants reported feeling an increase in revitalisation, positive engagement, and tranquillity by walking through urban environments and green spaces. Another study specifically focused on participants with and without mental health challenges, and findings showed that participants with mental health challenges experienced a healthy change in mindset after going on walks in green and rural spaces. Additionally, researchers found that participants without mental health challenges found both rural and urban walks beneficial.

Beyond physical and psychological health benefits, providing individuals with more opportunities to walk especially at an early age can have other significant impacts. A study assessing the impact of Walking School Buses in New Zealand found that individuals involved in these programs not only enjoyed improved fitness, but many experienced a higher sense of community. In addition, many reported finding it easier to form habits, behavioural changes, and children in particular began to exhibit increased independent mobility. Researchers also found that children involved in walking school buses had a ripple effect in their families; many parents were more likely to reduce driving times in favour of walking, if their children had developed an affinity to walking due to their participation in these programs.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The overwhelming amount of positive evidence highlighting the many benefits of walking should force government officials to prioritize the creation of more compact, walkable communities that will encourage daily walking. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect patterns of mobility, individuals have been forced to rethink the role of active transportation, so it may be that these trends are here for the longer term. However, it is important to consider an equitable approach to ensuring everyone has access to open spaces. As things stand, many communities and individuals are currently being deprived of walkable spaces due to systemic inequities, but pursuing compact communities can have a ripple effect that benefits all.

Despite a growing desire among urban planners and local government officials to achieve higher walkability scores in communities across the world, many of these plans have often been set aside in order to prioritize public transportation systems and car travel. Now is an opportunity to set aside competing interests and the need to prioritize car travel should be replaced by the need to ensure localities have adequate infrastructure to allow for higher walkability. Many cities around the world have implemented short-term solutions such as expanded sidewalks, priority zones for walkers and cyclists, and street closure to create more open spaces – however, this is an opportunity to ensure those short-term solutions become long-term ones.

Yanelle Cruz Bonilla is pursuing an MPhil in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Tufts University and calls Washington, D.C. home.O