For any person living near a trail or walking/biking path, a new study is showing it can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 8 per cent. 

"If you build it, they will come, and maybe even live longer," says Dr. Jon McGavock, professor of pediatrics and child health at the Max Rady College of Medicine, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences in a recent news release.

The study put on at the University of Manitoba looked at four multi-use trails in Winnipeg – the Yellow Ribbon Greenway, Northeast Pioneers Greenway, Transcona Trail and Southside Greenway. The trails ranged from four to seven kilometres and are in largely suburban areas.

The study was published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. It found that the 20 kilometres of trails attracted 5,000 cyclists every week. This added up to 1.6 million cycling trips over a five-year period.

"Since the trails were built in 2012, that adds up to 4,000 to 7,000 fewer Winnipeggers living with a risk factor for heart disease," says McGavock. "Importantly, this health benefit was greatest for people living along the Southside Greenway, the busiest trail."

The study was supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and found that the construction of the four paved, multi-use trails affected about 48,000 people living within 400 meters of a trail. McGavock said the data shows that expanding multi-use trails may reduce risk factors for heart disease in areas next to a trail, but this effect was sensitive to the frequency of trail use, or trail characteristics.

Anders Swanson, executive director of Winnipeg Trails Association, said that the research establishes a link between the busiest of the trails and heart health.

"Clearly, it is not enough to have a trail, it must be useful, nearby and part of a continuous network," says Swanson. "Any given trail must also connect to the places where people need to go. When it does, it gets busier. The busier it is, and the more it connects to a mixture of uses, the more impactful it is in terms of cardiovascular disease."

This is the largest experiment to date examining the impact of changes to the built environment that facilitate physical activity – like multi-use trails – on cardiovascular disease-related events and risk factors. McGavock said his study is significant because despite the rapid expansion of multi-use trails in many cities there are few studies looking at their impact on the health of the people that use them.