Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “exercise”

Bikes and Exercise

Last week, a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine documented the longevity benefits of regular exercise.  The study noted that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise adds an average of 3.5 additional years of life, and 4.2 years for those who do an hour a day of “brisk walking or its equivalent.”  While these findings are not particularly surprising, what is surprising is the fact that such exercise benefits even those who are overweight or obese.  In other words, it’s not primarily how much you weigh that determines health, but how frequently and how regularly you exercise.

In our culture obsessed with thinness, this study helps us understand the overall importance of regular physical activity, rather than simply weight loss, as a marker of physical well being.  “We have to get people to understand that it’s not all about weight,” Dr. Robert Sallis of Kaiser Permanente commented on the study in the Los Angeles Times.  “Not everyone can lose weight, but everyone can get fit.”    Public health specialists said the study offered “very conclusive” proof that what the Times called “our widespread laziness,” is at least as much a problem as the obesity epidemic in the United States.

When I read such stories, it reinforces for me the critical necessity of public investment in bicycle infrastructure such as cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, and bike paths in our cities and suburbs.  Such infrastructure will encourage more people to change their sedentary lifestyle by making it safe and convenient for people of all ages and fitness levels to ride a bike for everyday transportation.  Many people lack the time, money, or will to join a gym and stick with an exercise regimen, but everyone needs to get to work, school, the store, or other nearby destinations.  If we designed our roadways to make it safer and more convenient for people to ride bikes to these destinations, more people—not just the relatively small proportion of hard core road riders—would use bikes as part of their everyday lives, improving their health and well-being at the same time.  Making it easy and safe to get from point A to point B on a bicycle (or by walking) will do more for public health in our communities than all the earnest exhortations to exercise, which tend to reach those already inclined to exercise.  The study also underscores the fact that the exercise need not be strenuous to offer widespread health benefits.  The belief that one must be on the latest carbon fiber race bike and train for a 100-mile ride intimidates many people who might otherwise ride to school, the store, or to a friend’s house.  We must design bike infrastructure to be welcoming to that vast majority of the population that are not elite athletes.

Add public health to the many reasons we need to shift our transportation design priorities away from the automobile and toward “complete streets” with protected space for bicycles and pedestrians.

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Scenes from Autopia

Last week I was riding my bike home from the market with some groceries, when I saw a friend leaving her workplace, which is about a quarter of a mile from her house just up the same street.  She walked to the street, got into her SUV, made a U-turn, and drove home a distance of roughly 1,500 feet.  The street is not terribly busy, not too steep, and has a sidewalk.  Yet, instead of walking or riding a bike, the default mode of transportation for my friend, and for most Americans, is a car.  That used to be me, until I discovered how easy, healthy, and fun it could be to get around on my bike.

This begs the question of whether it is really necessary for an able-bodied adult to drive a 3,000-lb SUV to a destination 1,500 feet away.  There may be times when it would be necessary to drive that short a distance, perhaps if one had an oversized load, a broken leg, or if weather was really bad and you had small children with you (though some people with small children have gone car-free and loved it, like this family in Portland).  But surely we can drive less and be healthier (and happier) for it.  Would it really be so hard to substitute one short car trip per week for walking or bicycling?  Just one?  The sad part is, my friend, like most Americans, probably never thought twice about firing up the SUV for a 1,500-foot trip down the street on a pleasant, sunny morning.  It just becomes habit.

In this case, it is not primarily the lack of bike or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that is the problem, or time (on my bike, I passed her house roughly 15 seconds after she got there in her car).  I hate to say this, but a big part of the problem is laziness, mental and physical laziness that our car-culture encourages.  Why exert your own energy, when there is plenty of gas to burn and it will do the work for you?  And, there’s the wrongheaded assumption that riding a bike or walking is for losers (remember the Missing Persons song “Walking in L.A.”?  . . . only a nobody walks in L.A. . . .).  But, really, have we become so dependent on cars that we don’t even think twice about driving 1,500-feet rather than walking or bicycling?

And, of course, there’s the traffic and pollution such short trips produce.  Our cars spew more pollution and greenhouse gasses in the first three miles when their engines are not warmed up, than they do after.  And there’s the lack of exercise we Americans get.  Perhaps, like many Americans, my friend pays to go to a gym (doubtless she’ll drive there) and walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.  Paying money and burning gas to go nowhere and get the exercise our driving deprives us of.

Now, I’m not advocating that everyone give up cars completely (I haven’t).  There are times they may be necessary, especially in many suburban neighborhoods where distances are great, but it is time to recognize the physical, economic, and environmental costs of our driving habit, and rediscover the healthy, economical alternatives of walking and bicycling for some of our short trips.

Take the step.  Leave your car at home for one short trip per week–just one.  It makes a world of difference.

Bikes and Health

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.

Getting Started

Let’s say you want to incorporate your bicycle into your life, or drive less and be healthier.  How do you get started?

First, of course, you need a bike.  If your bike has been sitting in the garage gathering dust, check it and make sure the tires are properly inflated and the brakes work.  If you’re looking to buy a bike, I suggest getting a practical, comfortable bike with gears, lights, and a rear rack and/or front basket to carry things.

You certainly don’t need the most expensive full-suspension mountain bike or a lightweight carbon fiber racing bike.  In fact, these bikes are often more appropriate for super-specialized riding (i.e., racing), not all-around practicality.  Beach cruisers, while popular, tend to be limited in terms of gearing, so if you live in a hilly area (as I do) they’re not very useful.  Get a bike with regular “platform” pedals, so you don’t need special shoes to ride (“clipless” pedals are great for racing, but they require special shoes).

Second, set a goal for yourself.  A good goal to get you started is to substitute your bike for one short car trip per week.

Third, find your address on a map, and draw a one-mile radius around it.  Find all the places you go within that one-mile radius (school, library, bank, post office, grocery store, friend’s house, park, etc.).  Then scout less traveled side streets, if possible, to make your cycling more comfortable.  If you’ve got bike lanes or bike paths around you, use them.

Now, a word about bicycling in traffic.  Some parts of your short trip will involve bicycling in traffic.  It’s actually safer than most people assume, but you should ride defensively, be aware of your surroundings, and know the rules of the road (the LA County Bicycle Coalition website has an excellent overview).  In California, bicyclists have all the rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle on the road.  That means by law you have every bit as much right to the road as cars do and you have to obey the traffic laws, just like cars do.

There’s a huge debate among bicyclists about helmets that I think is ultimately time-consuming and fruitless.  In California, all bicyclists under the age of 18 have to wear them.  I usually wear one, especially if I’m going someplace where traffic is heavy.  I think being visible, paying attention, and following the rules of the road are much more important for safety than helmets, but when I wear one it’s nice to know I’ve got the protection it affords.

Once you start substituting your bike for some of your short car trips, you’ll enjoy the exercise it provides, appreciate the little things in your community that you miss in a car, and know that you’re doing your part to reduce carbon emissions and pollution.  Oh, and you’ll be saving money on gas, too.

Best of all, you’ll be having fun.  So, get out there and ride!

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