With the government considering scrapping the blanket cover of free bus travel for all pensioners – instead looking to move to a means tested scheme – they might like to consider a recent study based on data from a UK National Travel Survey. Researchers at the School of Public Health at Imperial College sampled almost 17,000 older adults between 2005 (the year before the free bus pass was brought in) and 2008; participants were required to keep a one week “travel diary”.

The findings showed that adults over 60 with a free bus pass were four times more likely to take part in “active travel” – walking, riding a bike and bus travel – than their counterparts who did not have a bus pass; the chances of them walking three or more times each week was also 15% higher . The benefits were seen across the socio-economic spectrum in the study. This study clearly shows that travel by bus can make an important contribution to physical activity and that those who do so are generally more active.

HEALTH BENEFITS

Although not investigated in this study, regular physical activity in older people can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and weight gain – a risk factor for a range of diseases – as well as improving muscle strength, and in turn reducing the risk of falls and associated fractures. Life expectancy is improved by regular exercise with previous studies showing that as little as 15 minutes of moderate activity each day in the over 60s can reduce their risk of death by 12%. Although again not studied here, the researchers suggested that taking part in active travel on a regular basis may also have a positive impact on mood and mental health; depression and anxiety can be a problem for older people, particularly for those who live alone. If regular activity can boost mood and feelings of wellbeing, it is another good reason for the over 60s to receive a free bus pass.

THE FUTURE

The free bus pass for the over 60s costs tax payers £1.1billion each year and since the recession it has become a target for cost-cutters. However, because of the health benefits which older people can gain through physical activity, the costs associated with treating medical conditions related to inactivity could potentially be reduced and as a result the free bus pass available to all older people could in fact offer good value for money.

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