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Improved physical health

Explore the benefits highlighted in our Waterways for Today report

Waterway projects can encourage improved physical health.

They can open up multiple opportunities for outdoor activities such as walking, running, cycling, fishing, sailing, canoeing, paddleboarding and volunteering.

How Waterways Can Help

The inland waterways open up incredible opportunities for outdoor activities such as walking, running, cycling, fishing, sailing, canoeing, paddleboarding and volunteering. Waterside routes are free and accessible to all – on foot, by bicycle, with the family, with a dog, on the way to work – and due to their topography offer flat or shallow gradients on good-quality paths, making them ideal for people with all kinds of mobility problems.

Hundreds of miles of existing canal towpaths are already incorporated in the National Cycle Network, but there are many more paths which are not suitable, or which do not exist, such as along rivers and navigable drains, or the towpaths of waterway restoration projects.

New paths will provide improved health and wellbeing for the millions of people who live near these waterways. Disability-friendly towpaths mean inclusive access by wheelchairs, mobility scooters and with pushchairs.

Waterways also offer affordable ways to get afloat, such as canoeing and other paddle sports, trip boats or hiring a boat for a day.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought significant numbers of people to the waterways for the first time, and in some locations this has put huge strains on existing infrastructure. Further investment in facilities such as parking, access points and long distance trails is needed to improve accessibility for even more people.

In 1996, Tim was diagnosed with leukaemia. We had a dream of spending time on our boat when he was better. The nature-based therapy of the inland waterways helped his recovery, and today we are still living that dream on The Princess Matilda.

Shane Spall, wife of Timothy Spall and IWA member

Case Study: #ShePaddles

British Canoeing, Canoe Wales and the Scottish Canoe Association choose a series of inspirational #ShePaddles ambassadors every year, with the aim of promoting the fantastic variety and benefits of paddle sports, and encouraging more women and girls onto the water.

One of the #ShePaddles ambassadors revealed in 2021 was Charlotte Ditchburn. Charlotte works on public rights of way for a local authority, and fits her paddleboarding into her spare time when she’s not volunteering. Charlotte is also an ambassador for Ordnance Survey and ‘This Girl Can Suffolk’, where she inspires women and girls to get moving, regardless of their shape, size or ability.

Charlotte got involved with paddleboarding in 2020 through a group called The Outdoorsy Type UK. During her first lesson she fell in several times but loved every minute of it. Buying her own board a few months later meant she could head out for trips to the Yorkshire coast, the Lake District and even the Outer Hebrides.

Charlotte would love to see more women on the water, no matter their experience. She says:

Paddling makes me feel free; free from the stresses of my working week, free from my social commitments and free from any expectations from others. I would say to someone thinking of trying kayaking, canoeing or stand-up paddleboarding to give it a go!


Facts & Stats

A study led by Glasgow Caledonian University between 2001 and 2017 focussed on the impact of regeneration along the Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow. It found a decline in mortality rates among people living close to the canal, restored with Millennium funding in 2001, compared to people living further away.

Another report concluded that canals generate a public health value of £6.4m each year based on almost 3.9 million additional kilometres of active travel per year, along with over 1 million cycle kilometres taken off the roads, and an annual safety benefit of £220k. Reduction in exposure to poor air quality of almost 85,000 hours per year for people using urban sections of canal was also found.

4.3m people visit the Canal & River Trust’s 2,000-mile network of waterways every two weeks. Some 690k of them cycle, 650k people run or jog, 180k go fishing and 1.2m use it as a transport route or for commuting to work. Over 1 million more visits every fortnight would be possible by creating or restoring an additional 500 miles of waterway paths.

The Thames Path is a 184-mile long National Trail, which follows the river from its source in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier downstream of London. The whole path can be walked, taking in urban and rural landscapes before heading out to estuary and marshland.

British Canoeing saw a 40% rise in membership during the summer of 2020, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with 19,000 new members joining during a three-month period. This trend continued in 2021; the organisation now boasts 92,000 members.

Just 4% of English waterways currently have uncontested access for paddle sports, with tens of thousands of miles where access could be improved to allow many more people to benefit from healthy outdoor activity and exercise.