New research findings from a 13-year study show that trends in walking for all adults in NSW have been increasing over time.
The study by researchers at the Prevention Research Collaboration, University of Sydney entitled “Trends in Walking, Moderate and Vigorous Physical Activity Participation Across the Socioeconomic Gradient in New South Wales, Australia From 2002 to 2015” analysed 164,652 responses from the most recent release of the ongoing New South Wales Population Health Survey.
The number of sessions and minutes spent walking per week increased uniformly, no matter a persons socioeconomic status. These results suggest that policies, health promotion campaigns, programs and improved walking environments and infrastructure may be having a combined impact on population-level walking. This is great news!
But – those who are most disadvantaged are consistently doing less walking. Additionally, walking appears to be the main or only activity people in socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are undertaking.
Physical activity guidelines
Doing any physical activity is better than doing none – and walking to the shops, for travel or for leisure around the neighbourhood is a brilliant way to start moving more each day and gradually build up over time. Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend adults of all genders, cultural backgrounds and abilities accumulate 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity (including brisk walking) or 75-50 minutes vigorous intensity physical activity each week.
The study found that the proportion of the population meeting physical activity guidelines has increased overall, but not in the same uniform way as walking.
Trends have diverged with advantaged, university educated adults increasing their physical activity levels at a faster rate than all other groups. Inequities in physical activity have been getting worse, driven by the most socioeconomically disadvantaged adults not participating in vigorous activities like sport and fitness programs.
While population level increases in walking will result in public health improvements, evidence suggests that vigorous activity participation provides health benefits over and above activity of lower intensities. Footpaths should aim to provide a literal pathway for people in the community to engage in more vigorous physical activities.
Policy actions on physical activity have multiplicative health, social and economic benefits. Strategic actions which enable and encourage people to move more should be continued and strengthened to target the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.
The Getting Australia Active III (GAAIII) guide (The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and The University of Sydney, 2020) provides action-oriented guidance for policy makers to support the implementation of a whole-of-systems approach to increase physical activity in Australia.
If you were not surprised to read that disadvantaged people are disadvantaged when it comes to physical activity, I understand, but it really is time for some bold action from government, non-government and private organizations to reduce these persistent inequities.