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And the beat goes on

An activity programme is encouraging people to swap cars for walking and cycling, reveals Margaret McDonnell

Margaret McDonnell
Participants must tap at least two Beat Boxes within an hour in order to score points for their team
Participants must tap at least two Beat Boxes within an hour in order to score points for their team
Children at Millfields Community School, Hackney, on a Beat the Street challenge
Children at Millfields Community School, Hackney, on a Beat the Street challenge
Intelligent Health’s Debbie Walters and Katherine Knight with the Innovation Award for Beat the Street at the Smarter Travel Awards 2015
Intelligent Health’s Debbie Walters and Katherine Knight with the Innovation Award for Beat the Street at the Smarter Travel Awards 2015


Beat the Street is a community-wide programme that transforms health outcomes by getting people moving. With a six to eight-week long competition at its heart, it challenges a whole community to see who can walk, cycle or run the furthest. 

It is run by Intelligent Health, a Reading-based company which aims to build active communities and to make physical activity a way of life for people of all ages. 

The firm is also a Technical Support Partner to the EU-funded ‘SWITCH’ project, which is looking at how ICT [information and communications technology] tools and health messages can enhance active travel.

Making behaviour change fun

The company was founded by Dr William Bird MBE in 2011. He recognised there was a need to get people to be more physically active. Inspired by his day-to-day contact with patients in Reading GP, the GP realised that the only way to change behaviour was to make it fun and innovative. He introduced a competitive element as a way of bringing the whole community together.

Funded by public health and transport departments within councils or by NHS clinical commissioning groups, it is  free for residents to take part. Players receive a special card which they can then tap on sensors called Beat Boxes, which are placed about half-a-mile apart around the town. At least two Beat Boxes must be tapped within an hour in order for a player to score points for their team.

Some 235,000 people have played Beat the Street in over 40 programmes worldwide to date. More than 177,000 people played Beat the Street in 21 areas throughout 2015 and they collectively walked an incredible 1.25 million miles – that’s 50 times around the earth!  Average participation rates are 14% of the population.

Not only is Beat the Street a fun way of improving health and wellbeing,  it improves the environment by connecting people to where they live or work. This saves money that would otherwise be lost to congestion and sick days. Beat the Street leads to long-term behaviour change by creating a social norm around walking and cycling to work, to school and for fun.  

The programme has encouraged  people to ditch the car for short journeys. Many people reported that before embarking on Beat the Street, they would drive their children to school as they felt they didn’t have time to walk in the mornings. Beat the Street helped them to realise the benefits of not having to find a parking space near the school. It enabled them to discover shortcuts to school that sometimes make it quicker to walk than to drive.

Word on the street

After each Beat the Street campaign, a feedback questionnaire is sent to interested participants to elicit responses on what went well and what could be done better.

In Annan in Scotland, 3,285 people took part in Beat the Street between 1 September and 12 October 2015. This represents 39% of the local population. Some 56% of respondents to the survey said Beat the Street helped them use the car less.

At the start of Beat the Street in Annan, 28% of people cycled at least once a week and by the end, this had increased to 42%.

In Dalbeattie in Scotland, 1,625 people took part in a Beat the Street event, which ran concurrently with Annan. Here, 91% of participants said the initiative helped them walk more. Half said it helped them take the car less (54%) and 20% said it helped them get back on a bike.

In Popley, Basingstoke, Beat the Street took place from 30 September to 11 November 2015 – 49% of respondents said they would take the car less after the competition ended. Eight-out-of-ten said Beat the Street had helped them walk more than usual and one-fifth said they were encouraged to cycle more.

One participant said: “As a family, we explored parts of Popley that we had never walked around before. On the school run, we walked a longer route to tap two extra Beat Boxes. It encouraged us to walk even on days when the weather was poorer.”

Another added: “We used every opportunity possible to walk or cycle as a family. Where we mostly drive to school, we walked and sometimes collected other children en route. We improved our fitness and had quality time together to talk, which was fantastic. We also walked in all weathers which we wouldn’t normally do!”

Walking to the moon

In Reading, where the project has been rolled out for the past two years, research has shown that people maintain their increased activity levels and those that took part in both years had even greater gains. Much of that increase in physical activity levels comes from the daily walk or cycle to school or work.

Beat the Street in Reading took the residents on a journey to the moon! The sum total of 306,599.2 miles were travelled and 11% of the population (23,992 people) took part – a 63% increase on the previous year, when 15,074 people took part. Over 50% of players were adults.

After participants passed the initial target of 250,000 miles, £4,000 was donated to The Royal Berkshire Charity.

Graeme Hoskin, Reading’s lead councillor for health, said: “Not only has the campaign raised a fantastic amount of money for The Royal Berkshire Charity, it has also encouraged people to walk, cycle and run more, which I hope will continue long after the scheme has finished.”

At the start of Reading’s Beat the Street campaign in 2014, 36% met the government target for activity for 150 minutes a week. At the end of 2014 this increased to 45%. At the start of the competition in 2015 46% reported they met the target, which increased to 56% at the end.

A survey of those who took part in Beat the Street last year found that 82% of those surveyed felt the programme encouraged them to be more active; 73% said it helped them feel healthier.

A partnership approach

In East London, Beat the Street was funded by the National Charity Partnership, a collaboration between Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation and Tesco. The National Charity Partnership decided to fund Beat the Street challenge as part of its aim to support and transform the lives of 40,000 families in the UK.

More than 22,000 people took part in four boroughs; Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Collectively, participants walked 103,000 miles and, again, feedback was overwhelming positive.

Here, eight-out-of-ten participants said Beat the Street helped them be more active and walk more than usual. One-third said Beat the Street helped them travel by car less often. One-quarter saw saving money on travel as a major benefit (26%), which is a much larger proportion than in other areas where Beat the Street has been run.

Almost half said Beat the Street had helped them travel less by public transport. One participant said: “I always used to take a car to school and drive everywhere, but after I heard about Beat the Street and joined the competition, I was always walking instead. This really helped me do my exercise and I lost a lot of weight. I hope to carry on walking and enjoying myself. Beat the Street was fun and exciting.”

Another said: “It opened up a whole new Tower Hamlets for me and my family. We found new parks and different things that weren’t there when I was younger. Beat the Street helped us to be more active and gave us a chance to discover more amazing places within those boroughs.”

There are many physical activity programmes out there and just as many ideas for getting people out of their cars. However, Beat the Street has been proven to work as it contains the right elements of bringing communities together to reach a common goal, combined with the fun aspect of the competition and the fun that children have when they tap the Beat Boxes.

Beat the Street energises a community, using a simple game at its core to get people moving and enjoying getting active. We achieve very high levels of participation and engagement whilst we reach the most inactive. 

Margaret McDonnell is media relations manager at Intelligent Health

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