Background: Increasing active travel (primarily walking and cycling) has been widely advocated for reducing obesity levels and achieving other population health benefits. However, the strength of evidence underpinning this strategy is unclear. This study aimed to assess the evidence that active travel has significant health benefits.
Methods: The study design was a systematic review of (i) non-randomised and randomised controlled trials, and (ii) prospective observational studies examining either (a) the effects of interventions to promote active travel or (b) the association between active travel and health outcomes. Reports of studies were identified by searching 11 electronic databases, websites, reference lists and papers identified by experts in the field. Prospective observational and intervention studies measuring any health outcome of active travel in the general population were included. Studies of patient groups were excluded.
Results: Twenty-four studies from 12 countries were included, of which six were studies conducted with children. Five studies evaluated active travel interventions. Nineteen were prospective cohort studies which did not evaluate the impact of a specific intervention. No studies were identified with obesity as an outcome in adults; one of five prospective cohort studies in children found an association between obesity and active travel. Small positive effects on other health outcomes were found in five intervention studies, but these were all at risk of selection bias. Modest benefits for other health outcomes were identified in five prospective studies. There is suggestive evidence that active travel may have a positive effect on diabetes prevention, which may be an important area for future research.
Conclusions: Active travel may have positive effects on health outcomes, but there is little robust evidence to date of the effectiveness of active transport interventions for reducing obesity. Future evaluations of such interventions should include an assessment of their impacts on obesity and other health outcomes.