IT'S OFFICIAL: as a society we have never been lazier. We spend our days sitting down – at a desk, behind the wheels of cars or on the couch slumped in front of the telly. New research shows that 6.3million adults in the UK aged 40-60 failed to achieve just 10 minutes of continuous brisk walking per month. Is it any wonder then that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic? Two-thirds of Scottish adults are overweight or obese – amongst the highest in the world – while about a third of children are at risk of going the same way. With that comes the increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. A Swedish study has just found that Scottish women are four times more likely to have heart disease than those in Sweden. Illnesses associated with unhealthy eating, drinking and smoking are costing the NHS – struggling to cope with chronic under investment – billions a year.

But is it really our fault? Are we lazy or is the set-up of our society the real problem? NHS England has launched plans to create ten "healthy towns" across the country from Devon to Darlington and last week announced those who meet exercise targets could be offered discounts on everything from food shopping to cinema tickets. Other proposals include sprinting tracks on pavements, free bikes and cooking lessons. What about Scotland? The Sunday Herald spoke to experts – from sports scientists and nutritionists to designers and planners – about how we could do it differently. Here's their big ideas.

1. Change cities

Loading article content

A brisk walk of just ten minutes aids fitness, boosts mood and extends life span. But if it's so simple, why don't we just do it? According to Diarmaid Lawlor, of the Scottish Government funded Architecture and Design Scotland, we need to make exploring towns on foot more fun than taking the car. "What people are looking for is a sense of purpose," he says. "Creating a walk-able street isn't just about creating nice, smooth accessible pavements." What about stepping-stones children can climb on at one corner, a performance space at the next, an art installation along the road or an outdoor gym? Traffic management plans that allow for people priority over cars are also important, he claims.

Frances O'Neill of Global Treasure Apps, which provides walking trails for towns, cities, parks and visitor attractions in the form of treasure hunts with rewards offered at the end, agrees. People download a single app and can chose from hundreds of trails, which see them walking several miles without realising it. "The trails are interactive," she says. "You are given a location clue and so you have to look up from the phone and solve it before you can move on.” Rewards for some trails even include discounts to local health and sports facilities, providing another incentive to exercise.

“Re-greening” spaces by adding roof gardens, creating "green corridor" walking routes alongside busy roads, and growing fruit trees along wider streets – could also help, say experts.

2. Pedal power

In the UK 66 per cent of journeys made are under five miles and three out of five of them are made by car, despite government messages encouraging people to go on foot or by bike. The reasons are clear to Daisy Narayanan, deputy director of Sustrans Scotland, a national organisation campaigning for better walking and cycling facilities. "If we don't have safe, segregated infrastructure than people are not going to hop on a bike," she says noting that existing cycle lanes often stop dead at busy roads, while in rural locations even finding footpaths that take you from your home to the shops for a pint of milk are not a given.

She points to the £6.5million investment in the two mile long South City Way, which will see Copenhagen style bike lanes created linking Glasgow's Govanhill to the Merchant City as an approach which should be widespread. Other ideas include European style cycling streets, where priority goes to pedestrians, then bikes and finally cars, as well as training for bus drivers on how to navigate safely around cyclists. The aim is to create a “critical mass” of cyclists on the roads. "About five percent is the tipping point,” she says.

Richard Millar, director of infrastructure for Scottish Canals, claims we could also think about paddle, as well as peddle power. Some brave souls already commute by kayak, he says. Perhaps a future fleet of kayaks could join city bikes?

3. Parkour to work

When was the last time you walked along the street playing hop-scotch on paving stones, or leap-frogging a bollard or swinging under a handrail - turning your walk to work into a Parkour-style adventure assault course. "Children jump, climb and swing instinctively," says Eugene Minogue, chief executive of Parkour UK. "But unfortunately as we grow up we learn that society wants us to stop moving, to sit down and stay there." Minogue, who is also the founder of the @KnowBallGames campaign – an attempt to subvert our "no ball games, no climbing trees culture" – says we need an attitudinal shift. So maybe we should ignore the inevitable funny looks and start playing again.

Parkour or free running, in which participants use existing urban structures to climb, jump and scramble, is the perfect antidote to our sedentary lifestyles for all ages, he insists, helping us keep physical activity as our default setting."There is a misapprehension that Parkour is for young men with six packs who want to jump from roofs but nothing could be further from the truth,” he adds.

Meanwhile children need to be encouraged back on to the streets, parks and town squares, and we should consign those “no ball games” signs to history. “We should change those signs to say "know ball games" and "please play here",” he says. In the play-park he advises that adults should join in, not head for the nearest bench, so everyone feels the benefit.

Others, such as Phil Prentice, chief executive of Scotland's Towns Partnership, claim we need to take play parks away from "pre-packaged, pre-designed play spaces used by dog walkers during the day and teenagers at night”. Fresh elements could include adult exercise machines allowing parents and teenagers to work out while the little ones play. "It builds exercise into the daily routine," he says. "Free outdoor gyms are a great way to democratise this."

4. Sport in the office

While having fun is important, Professor Kevin Tipton, chair in sport, health and exercise at Stirling University, claims to get real health benefits you need to build in some real physical challenges, with research showing that short but intense bursts of exercise really make the difference.

He is a fan of running up the stairs, noting that escalators and lifts are all too often the only option in public spaces from stations to shopping centres. Employers have a part to play too, he says, providing not only the space to exercise on site (and showers for afterwards) but the time to do it, be it in longer lunch breaks or by doing fewer hours. "Those with a progressive attitude should understand that providing opportunities for physical exercise leads to happier and healthier employees," he says.

It's not only cardiac exercise that prolongs your life. Muscle is important too. "People lose muscle as they get older," he says. "That is important for strength but we've also found its important for metabolic health - which helps you burn fat. Studies show that cancer patients have better survival rates if they have more muscle. "You don't need to lift weights. Even simple exercises like squats or pull-ups will help."

In schools professional athletes can act as mentors to encourage young people – even those who don't think they are sporty – to get involved, claims Jacqueline Lynn, head of school and community sport for Sports Scotland. Consultation with young people, particular girls, to find out about barriers from unsuitable changing rooms to lack of body confidence, is also key.

5. Ban junk food

Ready meals, take-aways, vending machines selling chocolate bars and fizzy drinks: everywhere we turn temptation is there according to Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead for campaigning organisation Obesity Action Scotland. It's time for it to change. Inspired by a programme in Amsterdam, the first EU to city showing a reduction in childhood obesity rates across all socio-economic groups, she thinks we need training for everyone involved in children's daily lives – from teachers and doctors to city planners and politicians – to ensure they give out consistent messages about the importance of healthy eating, exercise and sleep.

Junk food advertising, both in schools and at city-sponsored events such as the Commonwealth Games, infamously sponsored by Irn Bru should also go, she claims. "In Amsterdam schools have rules including fruit only snacks at playtime, children only being allowed milk or water to drink at school," she says. The city has invested in a network of public drinking water taps encouraging everyone to avoid expensive, sugary drinks.

Other ideas up for grabs are vending machines selling fruit instead of crisps in leisure centres, with link-ups to local fruit producers, city orchards or social enterprises to produce healthy meals onsite. Uptake of healthier school meals could be encouraged not just with tastier food options but better dining experiences with food served to laid tables.

6. Happiness on prescription

Our health is not just about exercise and healthy eating. Social bonds are also fundamental to wellbeing and long life, and make any stay in hospital shorter. Dr Pete Seaman, acting director of Glasgow's Centre for Population Health, says a recent study showed 40 percent of people across all life stages felt lonely in the last fortnight. Low mood, he notes, is not only indicative of poor mental wellbeing but is also a barrier to physical activity.

Some suggest social prescribing, in which doctors or support organisations write prescriptions for a month of community gardening or three weeks at the rowing club instead of anti-depressants. Others such as charity Plan Aid Scotland suggest co-housing projects with an in-built sense of community.

Diarmaid Lawlor, of Architecture and Design Scotland, meanwhile believes a radical rethink of how we design our city centres could offer health benefits. "The town centre used to be a retail area," he says. "But it could be adapted to be a living area. It's got a sense of identity, and there are a bunch of empty spaces available."

He believes that intergenerational housing projects – using whole blocks to create separate but connected units, with in-built community centres in former shop spaces, could mean community bonds are formed. Older people can call on young neighbours for help and able to offer life experience in return. Communal gardens – where older people can feed the birds while young kids look for worms – could be created, as well as community owned energy systems that help get rid of damp and condensation.

City centre living also means being connected, he claims, with public transport and other facilities on the doorstep, allowing everyone from young families to older people to go car free, which also helps to address air pollution, currently killing thousands of people every year. “Key to health is wellbeing,” he adds. “And if people feel good in a place that creates a sense of wellness.”