Driving to Obesity
Rates of obesity have reached epidemic proportions in the United States, according to public health experts, with roughly two-thirds of Americans classified as either overweight or obese. This is the highest level in the world and poses a host of other health risks, from strokes and heart disease, to diabetes, arthritis, and some forms of cancer. Obesity and obesity-related diseases are estimated to be responsible for $147 billion in healthcare costs every year. Adult obesity rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1960. What is even more alarming is that rates of childhood obesity are rising, with roughly 30 percent of American children under 18 classified as obese, and these children will be at much higher risk for serious illness in adulthood.
While the reasons for the epidemic are complex, two factors stand out as most important: diet and exercise. Americans tend to exercise less and eat more processed fatty foods than people in other countries (though the rest of the world may catch up as we export our sedentary lifestyle and our super sized hamburgers and soft drinks to the developing world). Moreover, for a number of reasons (having to do with lack of access to healthy food and lack of opportunity for exercise), obesity disproportionately affects low-income Americans and people of color.
We’ve become a nation addicted to driving, sitting in our cars rather than walking and bicycling to our local destinations. According to a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center, the number of vehicle miles driven by Americans rose from just over 4,200 in 1977 to 8,200 in 2000. By 2005, Americans spent an average of 100 hours behind the wheel each year and reported a 56% increase in the amount of time stuck in traffic since 1991. We’re also teaching our children to be car dependent. Look at a typical school in your neighborhood, where parents drive their children to and from school from as close as a few blocks away. Rates of walking and bicycling to school have plummeted in recent decades, and it doesn’t help that physical education programs have been cut from school budgets.
Making streets safer for bicycling and walking by providing bike lanes and traffic calming measures would enable more Americans to get their recommended 20 minutes of daily exercise by walking or bicycling to local destinations. Making it safe for children to walk or bike to school is one of the most important things communities can do to provide the means for young people to get daily exercise. How wrongheaded, then, that Congress recently cut funding for the “Safe Routes to School” grants that helped communities provide safe opportunities for kids to walk and bike to school under adult supervision.
Bicycling to Health
A growing number of people, myself included, think that bicycling can be a big part of the solution to our nation’s obesity crisis. For example, last Tuesday evening, I attended a community forum addressing youth obesity in Southern California, sponsored by KPCC and Bike SGV, that featured Carlos Morales, the founder of the Eastside Bicycle Club, who made bicycling a part of his healthy lifestyle and encourages others to do so by sponsoring community bike rides. As Morales tells it, bicycling literally saved him from obesity. Ten years ago, he was obese (defined as having a body mass index of more than 30), and profoundly unhealthy. He dealt with the stress of his job by overeating, and usually came home from work too tired to exercise. As part of a doctor’s regimen of diet and exercise, he began to ride his bike, one mile at first, then gradually building up the miles he was able to pedal. The bike also helped relieve his stress, and gradually he began using his bike to get around town. The more he did so, the more the weight came off. Morales’s story is an inspiring illustration of how bicycling can help save us from the unhealthy trajectory we’re on, by getting people active, by providing economical, personal mobility so that people have more options to get to where they can buy healthy food, and especially, by getting young people started on a life where regular healthy physical activity is built into their lives.
(L to R) Jose Martinez, Dr. Eric Walsh, Carlos Morales, and Dr. Karen J. Coleman address the Crawford family forum in Pasadena on the problem of youth obesity in Southern California.
What is especially inspiring about Carlos Morales is that he is not only a living testament to the power of the bicycle to change people’s lives for the better, but he has brought that message to his community through his organization, the Eastside Bicycle Club, where he tries to inspire others.
One of the questions raised by forum moderator Jose Martinez was whether government policy can play a role in changing the built environment so that people can live healthier lives. The answer, when it comes to bicycling is an emphatic yes. In fact we’re already spending the money, but we spend it almost exclusively on a system of roads that are designed primarily for cars, despite the fact that cars contribute to the sedentary lifestyle and stress that contribute to the obesity epidemic. Many people (especially parents) are understandably concerned about using a bicycle for part of their transportation because there are so few bike lanes and bike-friendly streets in our communities. The good news is, for a tiny fraction of what we spend on one mile of freeway, we can reengineer hundreds of miles of roads to make them safer for bikes, by building bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other measures that provide safe space on our streets for people of all ages to walk or bicycle for personal mobility and exercise.
We must make the commitment to bike-friendly streets. Our lives, and those of our children, literally depend on it.