What is Physical Activity?

Physical activity is one of the most beneficial things we can do to stay healthy over the course of our lives, and the built environment of our communities plays an important role in promoting exercise. Designing our communities to encourage active transportation, rather than car trips, can help promote daily and weekly physical activity. Active transportation is the use of our own energy, rather than motorized energy, to get from one place to another. By walking, cycling, skateboarding, jogging and running, we are using our own power to move around our communities, towns and cities.

In addition to active transportation, facilities that enable exercise can make an important contribution to increasing levels of physical activity too. Parks, sports fields and playgrounds provide opportunities to stay active, meet with friends and enjoy nature. Recreation facilities such as pools, skating rinks, running tracks and community centres within our neighbourhoods enable us to engage in independent or structured group activities. Often, many of these facilities are free to access, making physical activity more equitable for vulnerable populations.

How does it affect health?

Urban design that prioritizes car travel instead of active transportation is common in North American cities and has led to negative health outcomes for residents.

In the early twentieth century, as cars became a mass consumer product, urban planning moved away from designing cities for walking, bicycling and other forms of sustainable transportation and moved towards designing spaces for cars. 

Today, car ownership has grown to one billion, and is expected to double by the end of this decade, and the health and environmental costs of car-centred city design are clear. Along with increasing urbanization and population growth, enabling more car ridership in our cities has led to less physical activity, greater rates of obesity and worsening traffic-related air quality.

Shifting from car travel to active transportation increases levels of physical activity, which can counteract some of the health burdens of car-dependent communities. The World Health Organization has set a goal of reducing levels of physical inactivity by 15% by 2030, and specifically recommends that city planning policies promote walking, cycling and taking public transportation. Ensuring our communities are designed to enable residents to easily and safely walk or cycle to get to where they need to go can help boost their levels of physical activity and lead to better health outcomes for all.

Among the better health outcomes increased levels of physical activity can achieve are a reduced risk of over 25 chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Physical activity is also good for mental health. It can improve sleep, relieve stress, anxiety and depression, and reduce reliance on drugs and alcohol. It also supports cognitive functioning in older people and delays the onset of dementia. It has been estimated that physical inactivity is costing Canada $6.8 billion every year in health-related costs due to escalating rates of chronic diseases.

Unfortunately, most people in Canada do not get the levels of physical activity required to maintain good health. National guidelines recommend adults get 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week in bouts of at least 10 minutes in order to gain the powerful health benefits. Many people identify lack of time as a major barrier to physical activity.

Active transportation – and communities that enable it – is one of the most convenient ways to incorporate physical activity into our routines and gain the health benefits of being more active. With active modes of transportation, people can incorporate physical activity into their daily lives by replacing time spent in the car with walking, cycling or some other form of active travel. For example, people who live in the most activity-friendly neighbourhoods get between 68 and 89 more minutes of exercise per week – representing about half the weekly recommended amount – than people who live in the least activity-friendly neighbourhoods. The risk of an early death from all causes has been found to decrease by 28% among people who cycled three hours per week, while walking 29 minutes every day can decrease the risk by 22%.

On top of that, neighbourhood parks provide opportunities to incorporate more outdoor recreation and be more connected with nature, which has deep associations with our mental health and well-being. People who have more contact with urban parks are more relaxed, more efficient, less frustrated, more confident and more satisfied.

Ensuring early positive experiences is vitally important. Childhood experiences with outdoor recreation can shape a person’s behaviour over the course of their life. Ensuring there are parks and other opportunities to have positive outdoor recreation experiences in early life can help ensure that people gain the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreation, and the benefits of social interaction, throughout their entire lives.

Who is affected?

While neighbourhoods that promote physical activity benefit Canadians, not everyone has equal access to them.

A significant proportion of Canadians do not live in neighbourhoods that have features that make active transportation a convenient option. In 2011, 62% of Canadians said there were stores within walking distance of their home; 72% had a transit stop within a 15-minute walk of their home; 70% said they lived in an attractive neighbourhood. That leaves a significant number of Canadians without neighbourhood features that enable and encourage active transportation, leaving them to rely on cars to get around.

Further, it is the most vulnerable members of society who have the most to gain from neighbourhoods that support active transportation. People who are not drivers, such as people with lower incomes, people with disabilities, and some older adults can more easily access employment, education, health care, and community facilities through active transportation networks, which increase their mobility. These groups are also most likely to benefit the most from access to outdoor recreation opportunities yet tend not to live close to parks. Living within walking distance from a park makes people more likely to use it and gain the health benefits of physical activity, access to nature, outdoor recreation, and a space that creates opportunities for social connection.

By contrast, vulnerable populations often face more negative impacts of not being able to engage in active transportation. For example, recent immigrants who have a low income and live in low-walkability neighbourhoods experience three times higher diabetes incidence compared to individuals living in high-income, high walkability areas. Unfortunately, in Canada’s largest cities, such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, residents with lower socioeconomic status tend to live in the least walkable neighbourhoods.

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