Professor Nanette Mutrie MBE is Director of Physical Activity for Health Research Centre (PAHRC) at the University of Edinburgh. She has been a key supporter of the SCPN and reminds us of the many reasons why Physical activity can turn our lives around and impact on planet health.

Could COVID-19 have precipitated actions that might save the world? What a thought! As we experience the reality of social restrictions and economic downturn it is not easy to think that the world could benefit in some way.  Along with that thought must go first and foremost our heartfelt sorrow for the distress and loss of life that the virus has created.  But given the directions to think forward for this blog, this is what happened to my thinking...

Restrictions on travel and car use caused a drop in air pollution in cities where there are normally high levels of pollution. Such pollution can have serious health consequences and at the same time serious implications for the planet- we must not go back to accepting these health and climate impacts from emissions and pollution.

We learned that in most countries health was more important than economy – will we revert to gross national product at the key indication of success of a nation or could it become health and wellbeing? We also heard much more about mental health during this pandemic- perhaps releasing some of the stigma of talking about mental health issues such as loneliness.

Many countries demanded, at least for several weeks, that people stayed at home. This resulted in the need for physical activity to be taken outdoors [I know it has taken me several paragraphs to get to my favourite topic of physical activity but bear with me] with all CMOs of the UK reinforcing the idea that one of a few legitimate reasons given to leave the house was to be physically active.  And we learned new things from this: green spaces are important and enable people to be active; fresh air is important; short activity breaks will help mental health; something is better than nothing; and take the dog for a walk even if you don’t have one! Pavements and cycleways were widened to help people keep the two-metre distance and this was mostly welcomed.

So, my vision for 2021 – and beyond because change does not happen quickly for culture and attitudes – involves walking [and cycling but more people are likely to be able to walk than to cycle] being seen as a desirable daily activity. What will this mean?

It might mean that more attention is given in planning towns and cities to ensuring access to green spaces and to destinations such as shops and schools being within walking distance for most people. This is the concept of the 20-minute city which has been adopted in Melbourne and Paris already.  This approach will help people be more active in their everyday lives, could reduce pollution and congestion, enhance our connection with our neighbours and help local businesses to thrive.  

It might mean the end of the ‘school run’ in which children are chauffeured to school – in a 20-minute neighbourhood schools are accessible on foot.  That means keeping all the temporary cycling lanes and ensuring there is space on pavements for safe walking.  It means all of us being advocates for our local communities to be walking and cycling friendly for adults and for children. 

That vision gives priority to our health, to preventing damaging climate change and to a better world. A world in which health and well-being is valued, green space is accessible and mental health less stigmatised and a world in which walking and cycling seen as normal and desirable activities for health and fun and transport.  Could COVID-19 actually precipitate a better world?

Nanette Mutrie – December 2020