Cyclists in Edinburgh
Cycling could help combat diabetes, reports WHO. Flickr CC, Paul Morris

World Health Organisation suggests promoting cycling to combat diabetes

This World Health Day, it is diabetes that has taken the spotlight. As the disease continues to afflict more and more people around the world, the World Health Organisation has recommended cycling as a means to help combat it. Cycling UK's Space for Cycling campaigner Tom Guha takes a closer look.

This World Health Day, diabetes has taken centre-stage. With almost all national newspapers running stories and the World Health Organisation publishing their Global Report on Diabetes, it has been under the spotlight – and for good reason.

The report makes for grim reading. It estimates that the number of people globally suffering from diabetes has quadrupled in 30 years, from 180 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2012. In 2012 alone, 1.5 million people died from diabetes. Higher than optimal blood glucose levels accounted for an additional 2.2 million lives.

Four million people are currently living with the disease in the UK – and the number is on the rise.

Urban planning and active transport policies can ensure that walking, cycling and other forms of non-motorised transport are accessible and safe for all."
WHO - Global Report on Diabetes

The report combines both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, however the rise in cases has been attributed mainly to Type 2, which, WHO reports, is largely preventable. 

In the report, the WHO outlined a number of ways to stem the rise in Type 2 diabetes. High on their list of recommendations was to "create supportive built and social environments for physical activity".

The report went on to say:

“The physical or built environment plays an important role in facilitating physical activity for many people. Urban planning and active transport policies can ensure that walking, cycling and other forms of non-motorised transport are accessible and safe for all.

"The poorest groups in society, especially women, may have less time and fewer resources to participate in leisure-time activity, making policy interventions that target active transport and incidental physical activity throughout the day much more important.”

The report comes at an interesting time. In his most recent Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne MP appeared to be getting tough on diseases such as diabetes:

“Obesity drives disease. It increases the risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease”.

He’s not wrong. The most important risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes are obesity and being overweight – conditions which affect two thirds of the British population.

The Chancellor used these facts to announce his controversial ‘Sugar Tax’ – a levy on soft drinks companies that is expected to raise £520 million annually.

Obesity and diabetes are not problems we can simply tax our way out of. While extra taxation on alcohol and tobacco adds to the NHS budget, it has done little to impact consumption habits.

If the Government is serious about tackling the twin problems of obesity and diabetes, in addition to the 'Sugar Tax', they must do more to promote active travel, like cycling and walking. Currently just 2% of journeys in the UK are made by bike, compared to 27% of journeys in The Netherlands.  

Last week the Government published their Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. While it made some excellent sound-bites, the plan outlined a pitiful budget of just £300 million for both cycling and walking for the next 5 years, compared to £15.2 billion for road building over the same period.

To reach Dutch cycling levels, the Get Britain Cycling Report has said the Government must create a cycling budget of at least £10 per head, with a view to reaching £20. The current budget equates to roughly £1.39 per head in terms of central Government funding. Local Government funds will add to the figure, though we do not know by how much.

Cycling UK would like to see the Chancellor divert some of this proposed £520 million raised by his 'Sugar Tax' to active travel. Additionally, we believe the Department for Transport should re-allocate some of their Road Investment Strategy to cycling and active travel.

The Government cannot go on ignoring the warnings and recommendations of organisations such as WHO and Diabetes UK. Without a bold response and some real leadership, it will be the same sad story next year. The time to act is now. 

Tell your Councillors to support active travel and sign the Space for Cycling pledge

If you live in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, check out what Cycling UK is doing during your regional elections at: www.cyclinguk.org/votebike

TomGuha