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The Surprising Effect of Free Bus Passes on Senior Health

By Sarah StevensonOctober 18, 2012
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Even small or moderate amounts of physical activity have health benefits, and a new study shows that free bus passes may encourage seniors to get out and get active.

What if the difference between sedentary seniors and active, healthy seniors was as simple as a free bus pass? A new study in the UK showed that people over 60 with a bus pass were not only more likely to walk regularly, but also more likely to undertake “active travel”—defined as walking, cycling, or using public transport. In a city environment with ample public transit options, bus pass programs like these could be crucial to helping older adults get regular exercise.

The Importance of Physical Activity for Seniors

According to a report from the Surgeon General, the reduction in strength and stamina we associate with getting older results in part from getting less physical activity. And lack of activity is a real problem in our seniors: “By age 75, about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity,” says the report.

This is sobering news. Regular exercise not only reduces the risk of falls and accidents, it also lowers the risk of disease and improves mental health. However, there are a number of things communities can do to help, from providing physical activity programs specifically for seniors to encouraging gyms and other exercise facilities to accommodate older adults.

How Free Bus Passes Can Help

Assuming a community provides sufficient opportunities for its seniors to get active, there is still one issue remaining: transportation. However, it turns out that providing seniors with transportation to parks or exercise facilities has benefits beyond just getting our loved ones to their activities. According to the UK study, seniors with free bus passes were more likely to be physically active in their everyday lives through “active travel.”

Of course, for the purposes of the study, “active travel” included using public transport—but that also includes incidental exercise such as walking to and from the bus stop. Public health professionals now view such incidental activity as significant to many seniors’ overall activity level.

“In Britain, there is evidence that active travel alone is how 19% of adults get their recommended daily exercise,” reported Medical News Today. A free bus pass would enable many seniors, particularly those of low income, to be more active and improve their health and well-being.

Nate Berg of The Atlantic Cities is quick to point out that such a study might have different results in the US: “In the U.S., a similar program might not be able to reach the same goals simply because of the lack of public transit options in many cities and towns.” However, in the cities that do have good bus systems, such a program might be a huge boon to seniors.

Does your community have a free bus pass program for seniors? Have your loved ones benefited from it? Let us know in the comments.

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Sarah Stevenson