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.