Work commutes: would you hop, skip and jump your way to work?

Commuting to work can be one of life’s challenges – squashing yourself into the sardine tin that is your daily train or bus, stuck in traffic jams or trudging the streets. For many the commute ends with long hours sitting at a desk.

Now, a UK research initiative reckons ‘Active Landscape’ routes could be the key to exercising ‘on the go’, combatting the ‘inactivity pandemic’ and offering far better health outcomes than can be achieved through walking alone.

Walking to work not enough of a workout

Designed to provide options for different levels of physical challenge, the landscapes include routes that require people to pick their way through obstacles such as balancing beams, stepping stones and high steps.

In the past, research on how best to incorporate exercise ‘on the go’ has focussed more on walking as a replacement for other modes of transport, however, the benefits of walking (while better than nothing) are relatively mild.

A man and woman walk home from work
Walking, while better than nothing, is a relatively mild form of exercise. Credit: Tempura/Getty Images

“Even when the increase in level and extent of activity level is modest, when millions of people are using cityscapes every day, those differences can have a major positive impact on public health,” said lead author Anna Boldina, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture.

In order to get the best benefits from incidental exercise, researchers looked at ways to increase the walker’s heart rate as well as improve balance and bone density – effects that cannot be easily gained from walking.

“The human body is a very complex machine that needs a lot of things to keep working effectively,” says Boldina. “Cycling and swimming are great for your heart and for your leg muscles but do very little for your bone density. To improve cardiovascular health, bone density and balance all at once, we need to add a wider range of exercises into our routine daily walks.”

Child on balance-oriented playground equipment
Children don’t need much encouragement to attempt challenging routes. Credit: OsakaWayne Studios/Getty Images

The researchers were keen to understand how likely commuters were to pick a more challenging route over a conventional street path and also to ascertain which specific characteristics – such as perceived difficulty and design characteristics – influenced their decisions.

The study involved showing 600 volunteers photo-realistic images of routes with challenges such as stepping stones, balancing beams and high steps and comparing them to typical streetscapes.

“Children don’t need much encouragement to try out a balance beam but we wanted to see how adults would respond, and then identify design modifications which made them more likely to choose a challenging route,” said co-author Dr Paul Hanel from the Department of Psychology, University of Essex, UK.

A more fun commute to work

Eighty percent of the participants would choose some form of ‘more fun’ route over the normal streetscape in at least one of the scenarios.

“Our findings show that pedestrians can be nudged into a wider range of physical activities through minor changes to the urban landscape,” says Boldina, who first became interested in the idea when she moved to London and found walking around the city far less physically challenging than the hills and ancient walls she would regularly traverse in Coimbra, Portugal.

The researchers also found specific design measures such as a shorter route (10%) and increasing the perceived level of safety by adding handrails (12%) made participants more likely to choose the challenging route, while more difficult terrain – such as narrow balancing beams – would be more appropriate for routes more often travelled by younger walkers. When it came to older participants, they were as supportive of the idea as those in younger age ranges, however, they would tend to not take the most challenging routes themselves.

Read More: For the over-70s, 20 minutes of daily exercise could stave off heart disease

One particular route was found to be particularly less intimidating by participants, with 78% suggesting they would happily navigate the wide, low stepping stones and log with a handrail. One route experienced an increase of 12% in participants willing to traverse it once a handrail was included.

“We found that while embarrassment, anxiety, caution and peer pressure can put some adults off, the vast majority of people can be persuaded to take a more challenging route by paying careful attention to design, safety, difficulty level, location and signage,” said Hanel.

A group of yoga students balance on one leg in class
Participants who engaged in regular strength and balance exercises were more likely to choose the more difficult routes. Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

The study questioned participants as to their reasons for picking challenging routes. Up to 55% of participants chose routes that resulted in a short cut, while aesthetic design such as the incorporation of lighting and flowerbeds also encouraged people to take the more challenging route.

As inherently social beings, it is somewhat expected that 40% of participants were encouraged to take a challenging route when they saw someone else take it before them.

The researchers also found that those who engaged in regular strength and balancing exercises were more likely to choose the most difficult routes, while across all age ranges, only a small minority of participants said they would only take the standard path.

In the future, Boldina and Hanel are keen to bring their research into the third dimension and run experiments in test sites, which will allow them to also gauge how participant intentions translate to their actual behaviour, potentially helping to design landscapes of the future that are more aligned with good health practices.

“We want to help policy makers and designers to make modifications that will improve physical health and wellbeing,” says Boldina.

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