Bicycling and walking facilities provide a wide range of benefits to individuals, their communities, and the surrounding environment. The information below summarizes some of the many types of health benefits that can be gained by accommodating pedestrians and bicyclists within North Carolina's transportation network.
Providing facilities for walking and bicycling will allow North Carolinians to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives through active transportation, recreation, and exercise.
Increased Physical Activity and Lower Health Risks
Physical activity level has been identified as a key indicator of health, with lower physical activity rates associated with an increased risk for many different diseases and health conditions. Measures that provide opportunities for physical activity are increasingly important in North Carolina, where more than 65 percent of the population is overweight or obese. The lack of physical activity in children and youth has been identified as one of the greatest risk factors for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in childhood and later in life. It also ranks as the third-highest cause of preventable death in the United States, behind only tobacco use and poor nutrition.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate exercise each week, yet many people do not have convenient access to places where they can be physically active. Walking and bicycling are some of the most basic forms of physical activity, and improving facilities for these activities and linking to parks and playgrounds would help to better connect communities to convenient recreation and exercise options. These connections also make it possible to take short trips without needing to get in the car, thereby incorporating physical activity into daily life. Regular physical activity such as walking and bicycling:
- Reduces the risk and impact of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- Reduces the risk of some types of cancer
- Controls weight
- Improves mood
- Reduces the risk of premature death
In a 2008 study, adolescents who bicycle were found to be 48% less likely to be overweight in young adulthood. Walking and bicycling have been shown to have longevity benefits as well. An adult cyclist typically has a level of fitness equivalent to someone 10 years younger, and a life expectancy two years longer than average. Being physically active for even 10 minutes at a time can produce health benefits. A study on the Charlotte LYNX rail line found that nearby residents who switched from driving to light rail were on average six pounds lighter than nearby residents who continued to drive, due to walking to and from transit stops. These health benefits and other benefits of walking and bicycling were found to outweigh the risks by as much as 77 to 1.
Health Benefits of Green Infrastructure
A growing body of research shows that green infrastructure such as parks, open space, and greenways can generate health benefits. A 2010 study found that, compared to city environments, exposure to forest environments produced lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure in test subjects — all physiological signs of reduced stress.
Lower Health Care Costs
The health and well-being benefits of increased physical activity also have a positive impact on individual and societal health costs. Each year North Carolinians spend $24 billion on health care related to lack of physical activity, diabetes, excess weight, and poor nutrition. Walking and bicycling act as preventative measures against these and other conditions, potentially saving individuals and families thousands of dollars on health care. A Portland, Oregon study on the benefits of bicycle projects found that by 2040, Portland's investment of $138-605 million in bicycling will have saved $388-594 million in health care costs and $7-12 billion in statistical lives. Improving conditions for walking and bicycling in North Carolina will provide safe and accessible physical activity opportunities and help to mitigate the health, health care, and well-being costs of lack of exercise.