Research has shown that up to 78% of hikers would choose a more challenging route with obstacles such as balance beams, stepping stones and high steps. Findings suggest that providing “active landscape” routes in urban areas could help combat an “inactivity pandemic” and improve health outcomes.
Millions of people in the UK are not achieving recommended physical activity goals. Exercise “on the go” is key to changing this, but while walking on a sidewalk is better than nothing, it doesn’t cause a significant increase in heart rate, so it’s only considered a light workout. Walking also does not significantly improve balance or bone density unless it involves jumping, balancing, and dismounting.
But would adults choose such “fun” routes if given the choice? A University of Cambridge-led study published today in the journal landscape research suggests that most with the right design would.
Previous research on “healthy route choices” has focused on the likelihood of people walking rather than using transit. But this study looked at how likely people are to choose a more challenging route over a conventional one, and what design features influenced their choice.
Lead author Anna Boldina, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, said: “Even if the increases in activity levels and volumes are modest when millions of people use cityscapes every day, these differences can have a large positive impact on public health.”
“Our results show that small changes in the urban landscape can encourage pedestrians to engage in a wider range of physical activities. We want to help policymakers and designers make changes that improve physical health and well-being.”
Boldina began this research after moving from Coimbra in Portugal – where she climbed hills and ancient walls – to London, which she found far less physically challenging.
In cooperation with dr. Paul Hanel of the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex and Prof Koen Steemers of Cambridge, Boldina invited almost 600 UK residents to compare photorealistic images of challenging routes – which variously incorporate stepping stones, balance beams and high steps – – with conventional sidewalks.
Participants were shown images of challenging and conventional asphalt routes and asked which route they would choose. Researchers tested a range of encouraging/discouraging parameters in different scenarios, including crossing water, shortcuts, unusual sculptures, and the presence/absence of a handrail and other people. Participants were asked to rate how challenging they thought the route would be, from 1 (as easy as walking on flat asphalt) to 7 (I wouldn’t be able to do it).
80 percent of the study participants opted for a challenging route in at least one of the scenarios, depending on the perceived level of difficulty and design features. If a challenging option was shorter than a traditional route, it increased the likelihood of being selected by 10%. The presence of handrails scored a 12% increase.
importance to health
The WHO and NHS recommend at least 150 minutes of “moderate” or 75 minutes of “vigorous” activity spread out over a week, including a variety of activities aimed at strengthening bones, muscles and mobility to stay healthy. In addition, adults over 65 are recommended to do strength, flexibility, and balance exercises.
Boldina said: “The human body is a very complex machine that needs many things to function effectively. Biking and swimming are great for your heart and leg muscles, but very little for your bone density.”
“To improve cardiovascular health, bone density and balance all at once, we need to incorporate a wider range of exercise into our routine daily walks.”
psychology of choice
co-author dr. Paul Hanel said, “Children don’t need a lot of encouragement to try a balance beam, but we wanted to see how adults would react and then identify design changes that made them more likely to take a challenging route.”
“We have found that while embarrassment, fear, caution and peer pressure can deter some adults, the vast majority of people can be persuaded to take a more challenging path through careful attention to design, safety, difficulty, location and signage. “
The proportion of participants willing to choose a more challenging route ranged from 14% for a specific balance beam route to 78% for a route with wide, low stepping stones and a log with a handrail. The routes that were least intimidating proved to be those with wide, stable-looking balance beams and wide stepping stones, especially with the presence of handrails.
The researchers suggest that routes with more difficult challenges, such as obstacle courses and narrow balance beams, should be placed in areas more frequented by younger users.
Participants gave a number of reasons for choosing challenging routes. Not surprisingly, the study found that challenging routes that also acted as shortcuts were attractive. Up to 55% of the participants chose such routes. The researchers also found that the design of sidewalks, lighting and flower beds, and signage helped persuade participants to choose more challenging routes. Many participants (40%) indicated that seeing other people taking a challenging route encourages them to do the same.
The participants who chose conventional routes often had safety concerns, but the introduction of safety measures such as B. handrails, increased the acceptance of some routes. Handrails next to a stepping stone route increased acceptance by 12%.
To test whether the tendency to choose challenging routes was related to demographic and personality factors, participants were asked to answer questions about age, gender, habits, health, occupation, and personality traits (such as sensation-seeking or general anxiety).
The researchers found that people of all activity levels were equally likely to choose a challenging route. But for the most difficult routes, participants who regularly did strength and balance exercises were more likely to choose these.
Older participants supported the concept just as much as younger ones, but opted less for the more challenging routes. Still, across all age groups, only a small percentage of participants said they would avoid adventurous options entirely.
The study applies the idea of ’choice architecture’ (making good choices easier and less favorable choices more difficult) plus ‘fun theory’, a strategy that makes physical activity more exciting; as well as some of the key principles of persuasion: social proof, likeability, authority, and consistency.
Researchers hope to conduct experiments at physical test sites to see how intentions translate into behavior and to measure how habit changes improve health. In the meantime, Dr. Boldina continues to share her findings with policymakers.
Critics may question the affordability and cost-effectiveness of introducing “active scenic routes” in the current economic environment.
In response, the researchers argue that installing stepping stones in a lawned area may be cheaper than laying and maintaining traditional asphalt paving. They also point out that these measures could save governments far larger sums by reducing the demand for sedentary health care.