Cyclists on a city cycle route. Credit Thomas Graham

+ The health risks associated with travelling on foot or by bike are much lower than those associated with physical inactivity.

Active travel such as walking and cycling is great for your health because it reduces your risk of diseases associated with physical inactivity. So why don’t more people do it? I think one reason is a disproportionate focus on accidents – which are actually a very small risk. We need to redress the balance.

It’s an important issue because, when it comes to exercise, doing nothing is simply not an option. World Health Organisation data shows physical inactivity accounts for an estimated 9% of premature mortality worldwide. Coronary heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, stroke and breast cancer are all linked to physical inactivity.

But these aren’t the stories you hear on the news every day. You hear about things like cycle accidents, air pollution and street crime. And because they are given more prominence, it can seem as though they present more of a risk to you.

Yet when you look at the numbers, the real story is very different. For example, the NHS Atlas of Risk shows that transport accidents account for just 0.57% of deaths in England every year – and that’s all kinds of transport, not just active travel. Compare this with the fact that more than half of deaths (57%) are from heart and circulatory disorders and cancer, which active travel reduces the risk of getting.

It’s clear that physical activity is good for your health, and active travel is a great way to fit exercise into your day. So I think governments, transport planners and urban designers need to do everything they can to encourage people to travel actively.

They should raise awareness of the health benefits – telling people, for example, that physical activity reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 20-35%.  And they should also help people get moving by making walking and cycling much more attractive options.

Wayfinding systems like Legible London are one example of a step in the right direction. And some cities around the world are successfully encouraging active travel. For example, Copenhagen is famously cycle-friendly and, despite the cold winters, Zurich is one of the best cities for walking – with 46% of all journeys made on foot.

Even in the harshest climates such as those in the Middle East, there are ways to make a city more pleasant to walk or cycle through. As my colleague Tom Armour has said here on Thoughts, landscape is essential for healthier cities and cities need large trees – not least for encouraging active travel.

Getting more people walking and cycling to work would make for a healthier workforce, and not just by reducing the risk of diseases linked to physical inactivity. Research also shows that absenteeism rates are lower among staff who cycle and that active commuters are better able to concentrate and under less strain than those who travel by car.

Taking all this into account, the benefits of active travel far outweigh the risks. It’s time cities made it easier for people, business and society to reap the rewards of healthier commutes.