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Free bus passes have health benefits

Free bus passes for over-60s may be encouraging older people to be more physically active, say the authors of a study published in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers from the Department of Public Health & Primary Care at Imperial College London. The researchers reached their conclusion by analysing four years of data from the UK National Travel Survey. They found that people with a bus pass are more likely to walk frequently and take more journeys by "active travel" - defined as walking, cycling or using public transport. These associations cut across socio-economic groups, suggesting that wealthier and poorer people are benefiting from the scheme equally.

Keeping physically active helps to maintain mental wellbeing, mobility and muscle strength in older people and reduces their risk of cardiovascular disease, falls and fractures. Previous research has shown that 15 minutes of moderate daily exercise is associated with a 12 per cent lower risk of death is people over 60.

"Given the need to encourage older people to be physically active, it's good news that the provision of free bus passes seems to be having a positive impact," said Sophie Coronini-Cronberg, from the Department of Primary Care & Public Health at Imperial College London, who led the study. "Before the government looks at reforming the scheme, they should make sure we understand its value to society. We would welcome more research in this area, such as a detailed cost analysis to establish whether the scheme represents good value for money."

The researchers examined data from the National Travel Survey from 2005, the year before free bus basses were implemented, until 2008. They included results from respondents aged 60 or over in England, giving a total of 16,911 people. The percentage of respondents with a free pass rose from 56.8 per cent in 2005 to 74.7 per cent in 2008. The findings show that the biggest factor associated with not using active travel or walking is having access to a car. People in large urban areas are more likely to use active transport, and people in rural areas or small towns are more likely to report walking frequently.

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