Forget taking the easy route - why walks with obstacles are more popular


Forget taking the easy path - walks with obstacles are more popular, a Cambridge study has found.

Researchers examined how likely people are to pick a more challenging walking route over a conventional one, and which design characteristics influenced their choices.

Nearly 80 per cent of walkers said they would take a more challenging route over a monotonous one.

The findings suggest that creating footpaths featuring obstacles - such as balance beams and stepping stones - could be a popular way to tackle an "inactivity pandemic" and improve overall health, according to the researchers.

While going on a walk is better than being sedentary, doctors say that just simply walking does not cause any significant increase in heart rate.

Walking also does not improve balance or bone density - unless it includes jumping, balancing, and stepping.

The team invited almost 600 UK residents to compare photos of challenging routes and conventional pavements. The paths with obstacles incorporated different elements such as stepping stones, balancing beams, and high steps.

Some routes had a mix of scenarios such as crossing water, shortcuts, unusual sculptures, the presence or absence of a handrail and other people.

Each participant was asked to score how challenging they thought the route would be from one to seven, with one being easy to walk and seven being impossible.

Around 80 per cent of the study's participants opted for a challenging route in at least one of the scenarios, depending on the level of difficulty and design characteristics.

Need for 'wider range of exercises'

Where a challenging option was shorter than a conventional route, this increased the likelihood of being chosen by 10 per cent. The presence of handrails also achieved a 12 per cent rise.

Dr Anna Boldina, the lead author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Architecture, said: "Even when the increase in level and extent of activity level is modest, when millions of people are using cityscapes every day, those differences can have a major positive impact on public health.

"Our findings show that pedestrians can be nudged into a wider range of physical activities through minor changes to the urban landscape. We want to help policymakers and designers to make modifications that will improve physical health and wellbeing."

Dr 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.

The NHS recommends doing at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity over a week.

Additionally, adults over 65 are advised to perform strength, flexibility and balance exercises to keep fit.

Dr Boldina said: "The human body is a very complex machine that needs a lot of things to keep working effectively. Cycling and swimming are great for your heart and for your leg muscles but do very little for your bone density.

"To improve cardiovascular health, bone density and balance all at once, we need to add a wider range of exercises into our routine daily walks."

Simple changes can make a big difference

Of the participants, 40 per cent said the sight of other people taking a challenging route encouraged them to do the same.

Those who picked conventional routes often had concerns about safety, but the introduction of safety measures, such as handrails, did increase uptake of some routes. Handrails next to one of the stepping stones routes increased uptake by 12 per cent.

To test whether tendency to choose challenging routes was linked to demographic and personality factors, each person answered questions about their age, gender, habits, health, occupation, and personality traits.

The researchers found that people of all levels of activity are equally likely to pick a challenging route. But for the most difficult routes, participants who regularly engaged in strength and balancing exercises were more likely to choose them.

Across all age groups, only a small percentage of participants said they would avoid adventurous options completely.

The team argues that measures such as installing stepping stones in a turfed area can be cheaper than laying and maintaining conventional tarmac pavements.

They also point out that these measures could save governments far greater sums by reducing demand for health care related to lack of exercise.

The study is published in the journal Landscape Research.