The major diseases affecting the quality and quantity of life of Canadians, which include obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, depression and cancer, are all linked to physical inactivity. In Canada, 69% of women and 68% of men in Canada are considered physically inactive.(1) The cost of this inactivity and obesity was estimated at $4.3 billion in 2001.(2) A 10% increase in physical activity could potentially reduce direct health care expenditures by $150 million a year. This does not include indirect costs such as lost productivity due to illness, premature death or a range of other factors, including mental illness and poor quality of life.(3)
Thus far, efforts to increase physical activity by changing the behaviour of individuals have had limited success. One reason is that many people have difficulty sustaining behaviours that involve additional time commitments. That is one reason for the increasing emphasis being placed on active transportation, which is any human-powered form of transportation, such as walking and cycling.
Walking and cycling can be efficient alternatives to automobile travel. Cycling is usually the fastest mode of travel door to door for distances under five km, and for up to 10 km in city cores. Walking is simpler and nearly as fast for distances up to two km. When travel times are similar for active and motorized transportation, physical activity is gained with no net time lost, and at much lower cost. The cost of operating a motor vehicle is typically $10,000 per year,(4) while operating costs for a bicycle are much lower.
Communities that have sidewalks, enjoyable scenery, street lights and nearby stores have improved levels of active transportation and physical activity. However, in recent decades communities have often been designed around the automobile. Street design, parking space, sidewalks and distance to retail destinations have all been planned assuming motorized transportation, and this often makes it difficult to move around communities by walking or cycling.
Although individual decision-making remains important in any strategy for increasing active transportation, there is an essential role for communities and governments to play. Major improvements in the health of Canadians in the past 200 years have been due to improved sanitation, access to clean water and injury prevention. The role of individual decision-making in effecting these changes is dwarfed by the impact of the public health measures and infrastructure involved. Just as potable tap water is a health issue, so are decisions about land use, transportation policy and infrastructure.
Community design is a major determinant of whether people use active transportation, whether they are physically active and whether they are obese. Canadians need communities that make it easy to be physically active in their daily living.
Communities can create an environment in which the physically active choice is the easy choice. They can do this via sidewalks, trails, bicycle lanes and bicycle paths, and by providing pedestrian-friendly intersections, parks and green spaces, and safe bicycle parking spaces. They can also arrange zoning so that retail destinations are within walking or cycling distance of residential areas. This process also includes dedicating a sufficient portion of their street maintenance budget (including snow clearing) to maintaining active transportation routes as well as routes for motorized vehicles. It may include redesigning intersections, giving up vehicle lanes or parking spaces, or increasing the price of parking.
Additional benefits to designing communities for pedestrians and cyclists.
* a stronger sense of community with greater civic involvement by citizens
* increased property values and retail activity
* less noise pollution
* lower crime rates
* less smog and other air pollution
* less greenhouse gas production
* decreased risk of injury to pedestrians and cyclists
* decreased costs of roadway and parking construction.
A role for everyone
Other sectors can support communities in making active transportation choices easy choices:
* Businesses can create a work environment friendly to active transportation, including a corporate culture friendly to physical activity. They can incorporate active transportation planning into building design and create an environment friendly to physical activity. These steps could include making bicycle parking, showers and lockers available, and providing stairs that are pleasant and easier to access than elevators. They can also incorporate a culture of physical activity in decisions about where and how to hold meetings, and what people are allowed to wear to work.
* School boards can develop policies to promote active transportation to and from school. These include building and maintaining secure bicycle parking, ensuring safe walking routes within communities, and assisting parents in walking their children to school.
* Citizens can use active transportation themselves and treat with respect those who are already making active transportation choices. They can also lobby governments to make their community safer and easier places for cycling and walking.
* Physicians can encourage patients to use active transportation as a way to boost their physical activity levels and improving their health. They can also lead by example and use active transportation themselves.
The CMA recommends that all sectors (government, business and the public) work together, as a matter of priority, to create a culture in their communities that supports and encourages active transportation.
The CMA urges governments to:
* Commit to long-term plans for active transportation networks that are in keeping with these goals and that include specific benchmarks to measure progress.
* Require that active transportation be part of all infrastructure renewal projects, with investment in active transportation vs. motorized transportation in proportion to targeted active transportation use. (Some cities have achieved active transportation rates of up to 15%.)
* Develop an awareness campaign to help Canadians to recognize the value of active transportation in their communities.
* Require public health impact assessments for all land-use and transportation decisions, including the impact on the chemical environment and on physical activity.
* Assess the impact that changes in the "built" environment can have on public health, and which interventions are most safe and effective.
1 Tremblay MS, Katzmarzyk PT, Willms JD. Temporal trends in overweight and obesity in Canada, 1981-1996. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2002;26(4):538-43.
2 Katzmarzyk PT, Janssen I. The economic costs associated with physical inactivity and obesity in Canada: an update. Can J App Phys 2004;29(1):104.
3 Katzmarzyk PT, Gledhill N, Shephard RJ. The economic burden of physical inactivity in Canada. CMAJ 2000;163(11): 1435-40.
4 Canadian Automobile Association. Driving Costs: 2005 Edition. Available: www.carpool.ca/pdf/CAA-driving-costs-05.pdf (accessed 2007 Feb. 2).
Health, health care and the environment are linked inextricably. Environmental contaminants have been associated with compromised health status, including cancer, birth defects, respiratory and cardiovascular illness, gastrointestinal ailments and death - and an increased demand for a range of health care services.
The health sector is a significant part of Canada's economy, contributing approximately 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). Thus, the sector uses considerable energy, consumes large quantities of plastics, paper and other resources, and produces significant solid, liquid and gaseous waste. With the improvement of health care technologies and a growing awareness of environmentally responsible practices, there is an increased opportunity for reducing the health sector's environmental footprint. Although there are important health, financial and ethical reasons for adopting such practices in the health sector, a number of challenges exist, including financial, technical and administrative challenges.
We envision the health sector as a leader in integrating environmentally responsible practices into the delivery of health care. We also see it as an advocate in sharing information on best practices and encouraging Canadians and Canadian organizations to limit their environmental footprint. In a green health sector, minimizing negative impact on the environment would be a priority for all organizations and individuals in their day-to-day practices and at all levels of decision-making.
A collaborative approach
Achieving our vision requires a collaborative approach to delivering environmentally responsible health care. For example:1
Greener health infrastructure
* support investment in renewing physical plant infrastructure that allows for the retrofit of facilities that function more efficiently, use cleaner technologies and meet new environmental standards for energy efficiency, water management and waste management
* educate staff and the public on the link between health and the environment and on the health impact of environmental degradation, and help in the development, dissemination and implementation of knowledge and best practices
* support and encourage research on health and the environment, and on environmentally responsible practices in a variety of health care settings
* implement energy-conserving techniques and products
* request rationalized packaging and other environmentally responsible actions from vendors of health care products
* promote safer substitutes to reduce exposure to toxic substances
* reduce waste by reusing and recycling when possible
* practise safe disposal practices for biomedical and infectious waste, outdated medications, and polyvinyl plastics, mercury and other toxic substances
* establish green teams to support the practice of ecologic stewardship
We recognize that our efforts to achieve a greener health sector must fit into broader societal and global actions to improve the environment. The health sector plays a role in supporting the efforts of all Canadians to find environmentally responsible ways to perform their daily activities by contributing to the management of global environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste disposal.
Calls to Action
We call on governments and policymakers at all levels to understand and address links between health and the environment and to incorporate these links into policy decisions through legislative and budgetary actions.
We call on all health care organizations to pledge to minimize the negative impact of their activity on the environment and to seek solutions to existing barriers.
We call on individuals working in the health sector to both model and advocate for environmentally responsible approaches to delivering health care without compromising patient safety and care.
Association of Canadian Academic Healthcare Organizations
Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care
Canadian College of Health Service Executives
Canadian Dental Association
Canadian Healthcare Association
Canadian Medical Association
Canadian Nurses Association
Canadian Pharmacists Association
Canadian Public Health Association
David Suzuki Foundation
Developed by a working group of the above organizations
1 Canadian Nurses Association/Canadian Medical Association. Joint position statement: Environmentally responsible activity in the health care sector. Ottawa. 2009