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A walk a day keeps the doctor away: UC research

28 March 2017: Better designed neighbourhoods may encourage people to walk and reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases to save on health care costs, according to new research from the University of Canberra.

Researchers from the University’s Centre for Research and Action in Public Health at the Health Research Institute (UC-HRI) have uncovered a link between neighbourhood walkability and reduced hospital admissions for chronic disease in the ACT.

The research, which has been published in the prestigious Preventive Medicine journal in the United States, compared hospital admission data and ‘neighbourhood walkability’ or Walk Score® results for various suburbs in Canberra.

Walk Score® is a tool that uses online maps to quantify a suburb’s number of interconnected streets and the presence of shops, restaurants, services, public transit stops and parks within walking distance of each other.

Research fellow, biostatistician and lead author of the research Yan Yu said the project focused on the four chronic diseases which are among those with the greatest burden on health costs in the ACT.

“Our findings show that as the walkability score for a suburb improves the rate of hospital admissions and health care costs associated with these chronic diseases drop.

“We focused on cancers; endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases, such as diabetes; circulatory diseases; and respiratory diseases,” Dr Yu said.

“We examined data from 30,690 hospital admissions covering 88 ACT suburbs from 2011 to 2013, and we found that 80 per cent of these suburbs were still car dependent.

“Making the kind of changes that would make a car dependent suburb into a walkable one would deliver a 12 per cent reduction in costs and a 12.5 per cent cut in hospital admissions,” she said. “These could be as simple as improving footpaths and bike paths, revitalising local shops or increasing public transport access.”

According to Dr Yu, the research also took into account neighbourhood socio-economic status and found it didn’t impact on the results and the link between walkability and health care costs.

UC-HRI public health researcher and co-author Vincent Learnihan said changing the way our suburbs are planned or introducing relatively small changes can return significant dividends.

“Over the period of our research, the ACT paid $251.8 million in public hospital costs for the treatment of the four major chronic diseases. Of course, individually we’d all place a much higher value on being healthy and free of chronic disease,” Mr Learnihan said.

“What it found is a high rate of car dependency across most of Canberra, making it harder to capitalise on the benefits of walking. But the changes needed to encourage more people to walk would return a significant dividend in tax-payer dollars and healthier communities.”

The article Neighborhood Walkability and Hospital Treatment Costs: A First Assessment is available online. The authors also include Rachel Davey, Tom Cochrane, and Ivan C Hanigan from the University of Canberra, and Nasser Bagheri from The Australian National University.