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Better health is only a short bike ride away

CYCLING IN AUSTRALIA: More than half of Australia’s population can be classified as overweight and obese. This statistic is alarming but some of the risk factors associated with obesity – such as poor…

Almost everyone can ride to work, and the health benefits are enormous. california cowgirl1

CYCLING IN AUSTRALIA: More than half of Australia’s population can be classified as overweight and obese.

This statistic is alarming but some of the risk factors associated with obesity – such as poor nutrition, smoking and alcohol consumption – can be controlled. But chief among the controllable risk factors is physical inactivity.

A common reason people have for physical inactivity is they simply don’t have time to exercise. But in recent years there has been a growing emphasis on accumulating incidental exercise, usually at least 30 minutes a day. This means that during a day, you do things (such as walking to the bus or train) which make you more physically active.

Walking or cycling as a means of transport (or “active transportation”) is one way people achieve this.

Cycling has some physiological advantages over walking, given the intensity of typical commuting cycling is greater than that of walking.

And research has found that men who cycle to work are less likely to be overweight or obese when compared to men who drive.

Using cycling as transportation can also decrease mortality risk when considering factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and body mass index.

Changing your lifestyle to increase physical activity can be more cost-effective and beneficial than structured exercise programs.

Recent research has found that even ten minutes of intense exercise can reduce cardiovascular risks just as effectively as longer, low-intensity exercise.

So how can someone introduce short-duration, high-intensity exercise into their regular activity? Cycling to work is one way.

Getting exercise on your way to work not only reduces your transport costs, it can save time because you may not have to go the gym as well.

Cycling has a relatively high participation rate, with approximately 2.1 million Australians participating in some form of cycling in 2010.

That said, the people who may experience great health gains from cycling are likely not taking part. Therefore, it is important to ask what stops some people cycling to work.

Urban design can discourage cycling. Factors such as ease of travel, the availability of dedicated cycle lanes, safe roads, proximity of home to work, and environmental quality can all affect a person’s decision to cycle.

To encourage cycling as active transportation, there needs to be positive influences on both an individual and at an institutional level.

There are benefits for institutional change in encouraging active transportation. European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands – where there are many cycling-friendly thoroughfares – tend to have higher levels of active transportation.

As a result, those countries have fewer cases of obesity when compared to countries such as the USA and Australia.

Within Australia, Austroads and the Australian Bicycle Council have released the Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016 document, which addresses many of these issues.

Nonetheless, more people need to know about the physical benefits of high-intensity exercise completed over short durations, and how simple this can be to work into a normal day.

Events such as Ride To Work Day are a step in the right direction for encouraging more people to cycle.

If more people adopt cycling as a regular way of life, this will greatly contribute to improved health for the Australian population.

Read the rest of Cycling in Australia.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Richard Monfries

    logged in via Twitter

    Hi Robert

    Absolutely! Yes!

    As a middle-aged bloke that has no history of either Type 2 diabetes or heart disease in previous generations of my family, I was able to develop heart arrhythmia and premobid Type 2 diabetes, all because of lifestyle.
    I have turned the situation around by a number of effective long-lasting strategies.

    Incidental exercise - every day, on my bike.
    Active transportation - ditto.
    Lifestyle change - we moved in closer to the city, to use the car less; we catch public…

    Read more
  2. 6minutes medical

    logged in via Twitter

    Sometime worse health is only a bike ride away. I am now on crutches for eight weeks after breaking my leg in a bicycle accident while riding home from work. Yes, let's promote cycling, but we also need a safe cycling environment, especially when it comes to aggressive and 'cycle blind' drivers.

    1. Matt de Neef

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to 6minutes medical

      Too true. Make sure you check the site at about, say, 2.30pm tomorrow ;)

  3. Nicholas Dow

    Managing Director, CBDWeb

    Some of the factors deterring cycling are mentioned, but the obvious one is skipped - helmet laws. In Victoria, cycling as a proportion of all trips to work dropped after helmet laws were introduced in 1990, in the 1991 census. In other states where the law was introduced after 1991, the drop occurred in the 1996 census and in all states was still lower in 2006 than in 1986.

    Apart from deterring some people from cycling because they don't want to wear a helmet, the more subtle and pervasive deterrent…

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  4. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    I rode past a man who climbed into his car to make a cold-start journey to the gym 200m distant on that cycle-friendly sidestreet.

    For some people it is a mind-set problem.

  5. Tim Churches

    logged in via email

    How long before someone adds a comment telling us that mandatory helmets are the root cause of the overweight and obesity epidemic in Australia?

    More seriously, an excellent article, and yes, it is clear that there needs to be considerable, but nonetheless achievable, structural change in our built environment, as well as changes in societal norms, if we are to incorporate moderate or high intensity exercise into our daily routines. Having showers and changing facilities at work is one thing, but maybe it also needs to become acceptable to turn up for business meetings and social engagements a bit sweaty and flushed, and maybe lycra (because it is comfortable and dries quickly) can become acceptable garb in everyday life?

    1. Etienne de Briquenel

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tim Churches

      "Maybe lycra can become acceptable garb in everyday life?"

      Brilliant idea Tim. I can see the future now: tailored lycra suits with hi-vis ties. I might just try that get-up at my next job interview.

      Seriously mate, you don't have a clue about cycling advocacy, do you?

    2. Alan Todd

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tim Churches

      Nor was I. Tim, you'd have to think we (that is helmet skeptics) were silly if you thought we would attribute the the root cause of Australia's obesity epidemic to mandatory helmets.
      The causes of the epidemic (though I'm not sure if that is a correct usage for that term) are doubtless a complex interaction of social, cultural and economic factors, with the effects of diet and exercise generally considered to be of high significance. Now even before helmet mandation, the levels of cycling in Australia were pretty low. We all know that they were rendered even lower, by as much as 40% less, by helmet mandation. Hardest hit were the teenagers of the time, who will now be in their thirties. So not the root cause, but part of the picture.
      As the water saving advertisements put it "every drop counts"

  6. Nicholas Dow

    Managing Director, CBDWeb

    Thanks Tim, so not only do we have to wear helmets but we should also get used to sporting gear in our everyday lives? You have no idea about the factors which encourage/discourage cycling do you?

    1. Tim Churches

      logged in via email

      In reply to Nicholas Dow


      The article refers to the introduction short-duration, high-intensity exercise into one's regular activity by cycling. The reality is that cycling at a rate of 5 or 6 METS or more (see ) is a sweaty business in most parts of Australia, at most times of year. And having to shower and change into crisply-ironed business attire after every such commute is a genuine impediment, whereas as sweaty body clad in lycra or other sweat-friendly material…

      Read more
  7. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Tim, I think you are quite correct: that mandatory helmets are at least one root cause of the overweight and obesity epidemic in Australia.

    Perhaps the man I saw on his way to the gym felt that he was not properly dressed for cycling.

    1. David Myer

      In reply to Tim Churches

      Whilst I am with you all on the "cycling is good for you" (until you get knocked off or killed), I have to say that there are some sweeping statements that need challenge in this article.

      Robert says that Denmark and the Netherlands have high levels of participation in active transportation . Fair enough, but then he says: "As a result, those countries have fewer cases of obesity when compared to countries such as the USA and Australia." I wonder what scientific evidence there is for this cause…

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    The contending views on clothing and level of exertion point to the complexity that develops in a mature cycle-friendly culture such as The Netherlands.

    While the usually cooler weather and generally flat terrain makes for less sweat and smell, provision of showers is simply normal. As well, although people do not wear specific cycling clothes, the clothing (including underclothing) they wear will be selected to avoid actual discomfort or danger on the bike. Although Lycra is not generally used…

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  9. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    The issue of helmet mandation and adolescent cycling is not answered by the overall data for cycling in the community. Was adolescent cycling reduced by only the 40% mentioned by Alan, or was it worse?

    My suspicion is that it was worse than that but I have not seen figures on that. Does anyone else have data on this?

    The implication of danger created by helmet mandation may also have been a significant contributor to the general parental fear of letting children out alone. The "stranger danger" notion was perhaps more readily accepted because of sensitisation to "danger" generated by helmet campaigns.

    Whilst Tim thinks it is an outrageous joke to suggest it, helmet mandation may well be a considerable contributor to childhood inactivity and obesity