Friday, December 19, 2008

Biking for Health

It really was not until we moved to California that I was introduced to a bike culture. Many people we met were committed to traveling by bike; they rode everywhere  - to school, to work, even to sporting events. The roads were wide, the bike lanes were well marked and well maintained (no debris, no dangerous obstacles to maneuver around) and young and old partook in this type of activity. Was it exercise? Yes! Did it necessarily feel like it? No! For many, riding was a lifestyle, not an exercise routine. 

A recent study (reported in the press here) examined modes of transportation across several countries and rates of obesity. Countries where more people walked, cycled, or took mass transit to get around found lower rates of obesity. Obviously this study gives us no insight into why this is the case. While I don't expect that we can just start building bike lanes everywhere and expect communities to up and start riding bikes overnight, I see great promise in each place that I have lived to put in bike lanes to make it easier to get around without needing a car. Especially in the suburbs, where owning a car is assumed to be necessary. 

How do public health professionals, especially in suburban communities, change these transportation norms? What might be the impact for community health? 

R. Shephard provides an excellent article discussing the "active commuting" debate. Another study by scholars in Scotland examined adolescents' walking and biking commuting behaviors (to school, obviously) with regards to distance as a potential barrier. The authors found that adolescents were more likely to walk or bike to school if they lived within 2.5 miles, living farther than that was considered a sufficient barrier to active commuting. I wonder what that threshold would be in active cities in the US. This is a ripe area for future research and public health activity.

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