If you live in the U.S., there’s a good chance you haven’t gotten enough exercise this week: 80% of Americans don’t move enough to meet basic CDC recommendations. Some 80 million of us actually haven’t exercised–at all–in the past year.
The situation is just as bad in the U.K., where only 5% of Brits are active enough to stay healthy. As an attempt to help, the British government has been building a network of bike and pedestrian paths around the country. One question remained: Would people actually use them, or just keep driving by?
In a study, researchers found that adding better infrastructure does make a difference, although it’s mostly for the people who happen to live nearest to the new routes. People living about 12 blocks or less from or a pedestrian and bike path ended up walking and cycling an average of 45 minutes more every week than people living a couple of miles away.
The changes didn’t happen right away; when the researchers surveyed residents a year after the new paths were built, they hadn’t gotten much more active. But by the second year, it was clear that even people who normally didn’t exercise started to use the new routes to get to work or run errands.
“Our best guess is that a lot of the people using it the first year were people who walked and cycled anyway,” says Anna Goodman, lead author of the paper. “It was after the second year that people started making extra trips, and actually changing behavior. People take a while to form habits.”
Though walking or biking an extra 45 minutes a week might not sound like a lot to someone who regularly exercises, it does make a serious difference for people who don’t move at all. Even walking 10 minutes a day can fight heart disease in people who have been glued to the couch.
The researchers hope that the study can help persuade more cities to keep adding more car-free paths. “I think if you want to make a case for these things with an audience who is possibly skeptical, or not convinced, being able to provide evidence for these things is really important,” says Goodman.
“While in some ways it seems obvious that you build some more walking routes and more people walk, it’s also possible that you could build them and people keep their old habits,” she adds. “I think it’s sometimes important to demonstrate things even if they seem commonsense.”