Active Transportation and Planetary Health

Original Editor - Carin Hunter based on the course by Adam Toner
Top Contributors - Carin Hunter, Jess Bell and Wanda van Niekerk

What is Planetary Health?[edit | edit source]

Human health depends on flourishing natural systems on Earth. Any disruption to these systems can negatively affect our health. By protecting these systems, we also ensure that humans continue to thrive.[1] Planetary health focuses on the interaction between human health and the health of our planet. However, we are currently experiencing "unprecedented environmental crises",[2] including climate change, the melting of polar ice caps, ocean pollution etc.[2] Environmental crises, such as global warming and pollution, and other challenges such as social injustice, inequity and population health all influence each other.[3] In this context, planetary health is seen as a growing and increasingly important part of population health. As will be discussed in this page, physiotherapists are stakeholders in population health and can also play a role in planetary health and well-being.[1]


What is Active Transportation?[edit | edit source]

Active transportation is defined as using active methods (i.e. walking, cycling, scooting, or any other physical activity) to get to or from work / school. Walking or biking etc to a public bus stop or train station is also considered active transportation. Active transportation can have many health benefits as it encourages increased physical activity, but it is also considered a planetary health intervention.[5]


Interactions in Active Transportation[edit | edit source]

As shown in Figure 1, there are six key interactions between physiotherapists, active transportation, human health and the environment (labelled a-f). These are discussed in more detail below.

Table representing the interaction between the physiotherapist, active transportation, human health and the environment

a) Interaction Between the Physiotherapist and Human Health[edit | edit source]

An individual who has a health problem such as an injury may seek care from a physiotherapist. The physiotherapist can have a positive impact on the patient's health through the treatment offered (i.e. education, manual treatments, prescribing an exercise programme, encouraging physical activity).[1]

b) Interaction Between the Physiotherapist and Active Transportation[edit | edit source]

Active transportation might increase access to physiotherapy services for patients. In addition, physiotherapists can use active transportation to increase a patient's physical activity levels.[1]

c) Interaction Between the Physiotherapist and the Environment[edit | edit source]

This refers to more the built environment, and not the natural environment. Physiotherapists can advocate for changes in the built environment in order to improve access to physiotherapy services or other facilities that are important to the patient.[1]

d) Interaction Between Active Transportation and Human Health[edit | edit source]

In theory, increasing a patient's physical activity will have a positive impact on their health. However, poor health might be a barrier to engaging in active transportation.[1]

e) Interaction Between Active transport and the Environment[edit | edit source]

This refers to both the built and the natural environment. As mentioned above, active transportation can increase physical activity, which has health benefits, but it can also have a positive impact on the environment by helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through less private car use.[1][7] However, the environment itself does matter. It can either encourage or discourage people from exercising and using active transportation as a measure to increase their physical activity. A recent study found that environmental features such as proximity of destinations and safety from crime had an association with walking for transport in older adults in Nigeria.[8]

f) Interaction Between Human Health and the Environment[edit | edit source]

There is a clear link between the environment, a loss of biodiversity and human health[1] - the current pandemic highlights this point. As SARS-cov-2 is a zoonotic disease, so "it cannot be considered in full without considering human-animal relations and the biodiversity crisis in general".[9]

Similarly, poor human health can have a negative impact on the environment, particularly if illness or injury results in increased use of medical supplies or pharmaceuticals. The COVID-19 pandemic again highlights this point with the increased use of disposable masks.[1]

Benefits of Active Transportation[edit | edit source]

  • Cycling is associated with a decrease in all-cause mortality[10] and an increase in general physical activity levels[1]
  • Similarly, walking is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease[10]
  • Access to blue and green spaces has various health benefits,[11] including a reduction in mental health issues,[12] improved cardiovascular and respiratory health and changes in pain levels[1]
    • Access to green spaces potentially may have a positive impact on the human microbiome[13]
  • Reduces air pollution and air pollution-related deaths[14]
  • Decrease in traffic congestion, noise pollution and air pollution[1]

Challenges to Implementing Active Transportation[edit | edit source]

  • Pushback from citizens if infrastructure changes are required like building cycle-ways and increasing the width for footpaths
  • Poor infrastructures
  • Adverse weather
  • Safety concerns[1]

Interventions, Considerations and Recommendations[edit | edit source]

The following tables discuss considerations and recommendations if active transportation is used as an intervention.[1]

Table 1. Considerations when using active transportation[1]
Table 2. Recommendations for implementing active transportation interventions[1]
Encourage active transport as a form of physical activity to improve individual and population health while yielding, additional health-related environmental benefits
Educate physiotherapists and patients alike about the link between active transport, environment, personal and public health
Advocate for safe and better infrastructure for active transport
Advocate for more green spaces and fewer motorised streets without furthering socioeconomic divides
Advocate for active transportation routes in close proximity to biodiverse green and blue spaces
Advocate making e-bikes and bike-share facilities more accessible to those who are unable to afford them but need them the most
Advocate for better integration of active transportation with sustainable public transport in a way that ensures physical and financial accessibility
Interventions Considerations
Encourage active transportation to increase physical activity levels Are patients open to learning about required physical activity levels?
Is active transportation cost-effective for the patient?
Are patients aware of local transportation links and bicycle routes?
Does the patient have safety concerns preventing active transport as an option as a result of their age, ability, gender, surrounding infrastructure?
Promote positive lifestyle changes through active transportation Could adopting active transportation increase the patient’s social interactions?
Could improved sleep occur as a result of increased activity levels?

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 Toner A. Active Transportation and Planetary Health Course. Physioplus, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Maric F, Nicholls D. A call for a new environmental physiotherapy-An editorial. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. An International Journal of Physical Therapy. 2019;35(10):905-7.
  3. Maric F, Chance-Larsen K, Chevan J, Jameson S, Nicholls D, Opsommer E, Perveen W, Richter R, Stanhope J, Stone O, Strimpakos N. A progress report on planetary health, environmental and sustainability education in physiotherapy–Editorial. European Journal of Physiotherapy. 2021;23(4):201-2.
  4. Planetary Health Alliance. Planetary Health: The Future is Now. Available from: [last accessed 26/09/2021]
  5. Toner A, Lewis JS, Stanhope J, Maric F. Prescribing active transport as a planetary health intervention–benefits, challenges and recommendations. Physical Therapy Reviews. 2021 Jan 19:1-9.
  6. McGill Transportation. Active transport Environment. Available from: [last accessed 26/09/2021]
  7. Mizdrak A, Blakely T, Cleghorn CL, Cobiac LJ. Potential of active transport to improve health, reduce healthcare costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions: A modelling study. PloS one. 2019 Jul 17;14(7):e0219316.
  8. Oyeyemi AL, Kolo SM, Oyeyemi AY, Omotara BA. Neighborhood environmental factors are related to health-enhancing physical activity and walking among community dwelling older adults in Nigeria. Physiotherapy theory and practice. 2019 Mar 4;35(3):288-97.
  9. Maric F, Nicholls DA. Paradigm shifts are hard to come by: Looking ahead of COVID-19 with the social and environmental determinants of health and the UN SDGs. European Journal of Physiotherapy. 2020 Nov 1;22(6):379-81.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Celis-Morales CA, Lyall DM, Welsh P, Anderson J, Steell L, Guo Y, et al. Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2017;357:j1456.
  11. Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, Schiff JE, Wilt GE, Hart JE, et al. Associations between nature exposure and health: a review of the evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(9):4790.
  12. Pearson AL, Shortridge A, Delamater PL, Horton TH, Dahlin K, Rzotkiewicz A, Marchiori MJ. Effects of freshwater blue spaces may be beneficial for mental health: A first, ecological study in the North American Great Lakes region. PLoS One. 2019;14(8):e0221977.
  13. Flies EJ, Skelly C, Singh Negi S, Prabhakaran P, Liu Q, Liu K, et al. Biodiverse green spaces: a prescription for global urban health. Front Ecol Environ. 2017;15( 9):510-16.
  14. Johansson C, Lövenheim B, Schantz P, Wahlgren L, Almström P, Markstedt A, et al. Impacts on air pollution and health by changing commuting from car to bicycle. Science of The Total Environment. 2017;584–585:55-63.