forget to take the easy route

Forget taking the easy way – a Cambridge study found that walking with barriers is more popular.

The researchers investigated how likely people were to choose a walking route that was more challenging than a traditional route, and which design features influenced their choice.

Nearly 80 percent of walkers said they would choose a more challenging route over a monotonous one.

The findings suggest that creating sidewalks with obstacles — such as balance beams and stepping stones — could be a popular way to address the “inactivity epidemic” and improve overall health, the researchers said.

While walking is better than sitting still, doctors say that simply walking does not cause a significant increase in heart rate.

Walking also won’t improve balance or bone density — unless it includes jumping, balancing and stepping.

The team invited almost 600 UK residents to compare photos of the challenging route with traditional footpaths. Obstacle paths combine different elements such as stepping stones, balance beams and high steps.

Some routes are a mix of situations such as water crossings, shortcuts, unusual sculptures, with or without handrails and others.

Each participant was asked to rate how difficult they thought the route was on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being easy to follow and 7 being impossible.

About 80% of the study participants chose the challenging route in at least one of the scenarios, depending on the difficulty level and design features.

Requires “broader practice”

If the challenging option was shorter than the traditional route, it was 10% more likely to be selected. The presence of handrails also saw a 12% increase.

Lead author Dr Anna Boldina, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, said: “Even modest increases in activity levels and extents, when millions of people use the urban landscape every day, these differences can have significant positive impacts on public health.

“Our findings show that through small changes to the urban landscape, pedestrians can engage in wider physical activity. We hope to help policy makers and designers make modifications to improve physical health and well-being.”

Dr Boldina started the study after moving to London from Coimbra, Portugal (where she climbed hills and ancient city walls), where she found the physical challenge much less challenging.

The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.

In addition, strength, flexibility and balance exercises are recommended for adults over the age of 65 to maintain good health.

Dr Boldina says: “The human body is a very complex machine that needs many things to keep working efficiently. Cycling and swimming are great for your heart and leg muscles, but not for your bone density.

“To simultaneously improve cardiovascular fitness, bone density and balance, we need to add more extensive exercise to our walking routine.”

Simple changes can make a big difference

Of the participants, 40 percent said seeing others take challenging routes encouraged them to do the same.

Those who take the regular route are often concerned about safety, but the introduction of safety measures such as handrails did increase usage on some routes. A handrail next to one of the stepping stone routes increased usage by 12%.

To test whether the propensity to choose challenging routes was related to demographic and personality factors, each person answered questions about their age, sex, habits, health, occupation and personality traits.

The researchers found that people of all activity levels were equally likely to take the challenging route. But for the most difficult routes, participants who did regular strength and balance exercises were more likely to choose them.

Across all age groups, only a small percentage of participants said they would avoid risky choices altogether.

The team believes that measures such as installing stepping stones in turf-paved areas are less expensive than laying and maintaining traditional tarmac.

They also point out that these measures could save the government even more money by reducing the need for health care related to lack of exercise.

The study was published in the journal Landscape Research.

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