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Walking Steps Back Onto the Agenda - Hoorah!

31/07/2015 17:48 BST | Updated 31/07/2016 10:59 BST

We are in the midst of a thoroughly modern health crisis. A lack of activity in our daily lives is exacerbating the rising tide of long term illnesses from diabetes to dementia.

People today walk almost a third less than they did just twenty years ago. Whilst for our grandparent's generation, walking to school was the norm, nowadays it's becoming more and more uncommon.

You might say, so what, things have changed, that's just the way of the world. And yet today, for the first time ever, the government has laid down in law a commitment to do something about it. It's something we should be celebrating. Here's why.

Most of us identify ourselves as one thing or another. Maybe you see yourself as a parent, or someone of a particular profession or trade, perhaps even a cyclist? It's unlikely however that you identify yourself as someone who walks (I'm not talking walking up hills in the country here - I'm talking about walking from A-B, nipping to the local shops, getting the kids to school kind of trips). We take it for granted.

Yet because almost all of us walk, we all experience what it's like and that experience impacts on our everyday lives. We all know places that are good and those that are bad to walk. Places we might make a detour to walk to and those we'd never walk near in a million years. Most of us say we'd like to walk more if it was safer, more attractive or more convenient.

And when we walk, it's good for us. Not only that, it's good for others too - it means we're not emitting dangerous vehicle gases into the air and we're using less space than when we choose to take the car (important in congested towns and cities).

But the overwhelming case for more walking is a health one.

Inactivity is responsible for 17% of early deaths in the UK*. It increases the risk of serious illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, and makes it more likely that people will be overweight or obese. Being overweight is currently a very serious problem, one that has been highlighted this week by supermarket giant Tesco taking the huge decision to stop their customers buying certain sugary drinks like Ribena. But diet isn't the only contributor; inactivity is an unhealthy diet's partner in crime.

As our lifestyle becomes more sedentary - or less active - we are growing fatter and unhealthier and generally costing the NHS and the tax payer an awful lot of money (an estimated cost of £8.2billion** per year to England's economy).

And our population is getting older. There's a very real danger that if we can't improve the health of 40-60 year olds now, we're going to bankrupt the NHS of the future.

Because of all this, the buzz word right now in health is prevention. And that means getting people more active. Particularly, it's getting those who are currently very inactive to do a little bit more. For most of these people, getting them to go to a gym or to join a sports club is never going to happen.

The simplest next step for most people is to do more walking. In fact, this was summarised last week when the Chief Executive of NHS England described walking as a 'miracle cure' for public health.

So back to today's announcement. The government has already made a big step by committing to reverse the decline in walk to school.

Now, with the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy being laid down in law, they have committed for the first time to set out a long term plan for improving walking and cycling for everyone. Unsurprisingly, it's something that we've had for roads and rail for a long time.

As you might expect, the details in all this will decide whether this really is the beginning to step change we so urgently require, to reverse the decline in walking. Organisations like Living Streets will be doing all it can to make sure that the final strategy is the kind of ambitious game changer that's needed.

The first test will be to ensure the government earmarks sufficient funds across the departments in the forthcoming Spending Review. In times of austerity that's not going to be easy. But for now, we should be celebrating.

Today, Friday 31st July 2015 these regulations bring into force part 2 (Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy) of the Infrastructure Act 2015.

*Ramblers, Walking Works Report

**National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)