Active Transportation: Battling Sedentarism

A healthy lifestyle will make all bodily functions work better, including immunity. Keeping physically active through active transport (AT) is one of the key components of a healthy lifestyle. AT means walking, cycling and using public transport, and this is achieved when a person normally has more than 10 minutes of walking and/or bicycling.

In January 2020, we found ourselves facing a global pandemic, the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Within eight months of the outbreak, COVID-19 has infected over 9,000 persons in Malaysia, with 127 confirmed deaths. Requiring people to practice social distancing and undergoing self-quarantine and/or self-isolation are public health mitigation strategies and actions our country has used to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, COVID-19 control measures have reduced people’s daily physical movement, which may contribute to negative health impacts, such as overweight, obesity and abdominal obesity, which are significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes mellitus and cancer.

Individuals can engage in AT as one of the easiest ways to fight the impact of this global problem with people’s physical health. As a general goal, individuals should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. Moderate physical activity does not mean exercising, but it includes daily activities involving energy expense, such as non-sedentary jobs, household chores or playing and walking. Therefore, keeping physically active does not necessarily mean going to fitness centres. A simple, accessible, and inexpensive way to incorporate physical activity into our daily routine is to practice AT, such as walking and cycling. Young people and adults can reach the daily recommended minutes of exercise simply by making daily trips to the school, universities and the workplace. For those who need to cover longer distances, they can combine AT with public transport; for example, university students who live near light rail transit stations can take this public transport followed by walking to reach their destination. However, as we are still in the period of recovery movement control order because of COVID-19, individuals using public transport need to comply with the standard operating procedure.

The health benefits of AT include increased physical activity, improved mental health and reduced risk of diseases, such as CVD and cancer. A study by Xu et al. in 2013 assessed the relationship between AT and health outcomes, and it found that AT is significantly associated with improved cardiovascular health and lower body weight. Apart from this, a study by Hamer and Yoichi in 2008 found that active commuting (walking or cycling) decreases cardiovascular risk by 11%. Another study found that shifting 5% of short urban car trips to cycling in New Zealand would result in 116 fewer deaths each year through increased physical activity. In terms of mental health, evidence has shown that an increase in moderate and vigorous physical activity is associated with a reduction in stress and depression and better sleeping conditions.

Battling sedentarism is not only at the individual level. It involves a collaborative approach, and the authorities can help increase people’s physical activity levels by creating people-friendly cities. This will promote walking, cycling and the use of public transportation amongst our population.

Written by:
Associate Professor Dr Nik Daliana Nik Farid
Public Health Medicine Specialist
Department of Social and Preventive Medicine
Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya

*The article was first published on the Malaysian Medical Gazette on the 21 October 2020

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