Is Bicycling a Form of Preventive Health Care?

Recent studies continue to shed light on how everyday cycling is not only good for our cardiovascular health but also a way to save billions in health care costs.

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Recent studies continue to shed light on how everyday cycling is not only good for our cardiovascular health but also a way to save billions in health care costs. While everyday cycling is starting to be recognized as a low-impact form of exercise there remains resistance to accepting riding a bike as a form of preventive health care across North America.

Clearly, biking is advantageous for one’s physical health. It’s widely known that cycling is a low-impact form of exercise that’s good for the cardiovascular system, a way to control weight gain, and benefits our immune system. In addition, daily bicycling can have positive effects on our mental well-being.

In June 2013, the American Medical Association voted in favor of recognizing obesity as a disease; the Food and Drug Administration already does. This newly-labeled disease is predicted to affect more than 44 percent of all Americans by 2030 if no action is taken. Canada is not exempt from this health crisis: in 2010, Statistics Canada found that an average of 34 percent of individuals aged 60 to 69 were obese.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified the positive impact of making cities more bike-friendly: “integrating health-enhancing choices into transportation policy has the potential to save lives by preventing chronic diseases, reducing and preventing motor-vehicle-related injury and deaths, improving environmental health, while stimulating economic development, and ensuring access for all people.” The CDC also recognized that a lack of efficient transportation alternatives to driving and a fear of biking in heavy traffic only encouraged people to continue to drive all or most of the time.

In light of these findings, there remains resistance, mostly political, in accepting the benefits of daily bicycling as preventive health care. The Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act has set aside money for improving bicycling conditions through the Prevention and Public Health Fund. However, according to The Wall Street Journal, none of the 85 cities in the US that are actively installing better bicycle infrastructure (including protected bike lanes, trails, and bike share systems) have accessed these funds. Connecting bicycling to preventive health care in the US has yet to gain public acceptance and would draw resistance to these projects.

The silver lining is: there is growing acceptance of the Complete Streets movement. Complete Streets – or roadways that enable safe transportation for all road users – provide opportunities for increased, safe physical activity. Also, it’s been found that these streets are the most effective solution for encouraging daily physical activity. With 488 Complete Streets policies adopted in the US, the connection between health care and active transportation is gaining ground.

Providing bike riders with a safe and convenient way to commute every day should be seen as a form of preventive health care. With a safe network of bike routes, more North Americans can be encouraged to take to their bikes instead of their cars, which could very likely result in billions of health care dollars saved.

UNCOVERING BICYCLING’S HEALTH CARE SAVINGS

A study led by Dr. Thomas Götschi of the Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine at the University of Zurich examined the costs and benefits of bicycling in Portland, OR. Götschi’s findings are startling: “By 2040, investments [in everyday bicycling in the USA] in the range of $138 to $605 million will result in health care cost savings of $388 to $594 million (…) and savings in value of statistical lives of $7 to $12 billion.” Götschi’s study is the first cost-benefit analysis of investments in bicycling.

A study conducted by Jonathan Patz and Maggie Grabow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published in Environmental Health Perspectives looked to quantify the benefits of reduced car usage in 11 metropolitan areas in the upper Midwestern United States. The study found that replacing short car trips with biking could net health benefits of $4.94 billion per year in the study area. Mortality could also decline by roughly 1,000 per year due to increased fitness levels and improved air quality.


Karin Olafson is the assistant web editor at Avenue magazine in Calgary, AB. Outside of office hours, she writes about sustainable transportation, health, and fitness. karinolafson.wordpress.com

4 Comments

  • kristin

    While I definitely agree that the “helmet police” are annoying and incorrect, I really feel that the god-awful infrastructure for cycling in America is more to blame than helmet culture. The people I know who could easily bike but don’t are afraid of cars, not falling over. They’re also afraid of the rain (Washington state), the dark, the cold, and that it will take far too long to get places. It’s their own ideas that prevent them from trying it out, and yes, mandatory helmets are part of that. But I organize group night bicycle rides and co-workers who have gone years without cycling participate because the fear of being invisible to cars is removed in the group setting. All that said, I rarely wear a helmet in the summer; it feels too good outside to put one on! Cheers!

  • Jim Moore

    Fantasticly put Brad. Great comments on a great article.

  • Brad

    One has to wonder at how the impact of the promotion of bicycle helmets has hurt the efforts to have the public understand that riding a bike results in better health.

    Promoting the use of helmets requires the public to believe riding a bicycle is a risk to health.

    You can promote bicycle as beneficial to health or you promote bicycle use as a risk to health but you cannot do both.

    • MarkB

      EXACTLY right, Brad — ONE faulty study twenty years ago, and the American public believes helmets are more effective than seat belts. A piece of styrofoam that protects ONLY above the temples, rated for impacts at a slow jogging speed, make ALL the difference in the world for bicycle safety…ludicrous.

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