Commuter cycling: does it help your health?

In an earlier post I explained that recently I have been making more individual cycling trips than at any point in the last thirty-odd years. I also commented, when comparing the subjective experiences of cycling and walking, that cycling offers a wider range of physical intensity.

Even though most of my recent cycle trips have been short distances ( < 5 miles) it has been very striking that even a short, slow, flat, offroad journey will involve bursts of energy that you simply do not get in a walking trip. This is partly because nowhere, nowhere is completely flat. But you don’t really remember it. Thirty yards up a bit of slope, enough to make you pant for a few seconds? Forgotten as soon as its over. Accelerating to get past a bus? You do it without thinking or bothering. And these events occur even in the trips of the gentlest, the slowest, the most pootlesome of bike riders.

This struck me as something where – viewed purely as everyday transport – cycling really does win over walking. Raising physical intensity in a walking trip is difficult. With effort, you can just about make walking as hard as a rather gentle bike ride. I had lately taken to breaking into a minimalist jog for parts of walking journeys and of course Bristol is famously hilly – but I’m both temperamentally impatient and interested in experimenting with this kind of thing and I have to admit that truly vigorous utility walking is never going to be that popular.

So I was very pleased to see my speculation confirmed at Commuter cycling: does it help your health? a talk by Professor Ashley Cooper [note, I’ll change the link to the actual powerpoints, once they’re up on the Bristol Uni website]. The talk was one of the events of the Bristol Cycle Festival

There is now a ton of evidence about the benefits of what has been given the jargon term “moderate to vigorous physical activity” and Prof Cooper sketched out some of the seminal studies (the London bus crews for instance – conductors and drivers provided a really neat pair of otherwise similar groups which differ consistently in their workplace levels of physical activity). However he went on to say that there is “little hard evidence” of the specific benefits of cycling – but there is some. (By “hard” he meant well-designed academic studies – there is of course masses of personal experience – anecdotal evidence is not necessarily trivial in the sense that it can point at a real phenomenon, but the proper studies do have to be done to test our intuitions).

Sorry, I’m digressing – I made fairly extensive notes and I don’t wish to just transcribe them. To get back to the point I started with, Professor Cooper said plainly that the available evidence shows that:

“cycling gives you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of health benefits [than walking]”

And that benefit is thought to be because of the higher overall intensity of cycling:

“it is intensity which gives you the health benefits”

The research into physical activity has always shown that intensity is important. “Intensity” (how much it raises your heart rate) is to be counterpoised to “duration” and the current thinking is moving towards saying that “high intensity + short duration” is better than “low intensity + long duration”. I see that my notes contain the line “for increases in life expectancy – duration does not matter”.

Not sure how accurate that note is – it does sound pretty radical. It’s interesting to me how knowledge about exercise and health has changed over the years. At one point it seemed to be thought that beneficial exercise had to be both quite intense and of fairly lengthy duration. Decades ago I recall being told that going for a five- or ten-minute run couldn’t possibly do me any good at all – and as for walking hah! Well I’ve gradually watched the advice change and now it seems that almost any exercise at all will do you some good. This is great news. (And, incidentally, a nice example of the way the way that science changes its picture of the world as more evidence comes in). Any exercise will do you some good, but (in a broad way) greater intensity gives better results.

A complication

My earlier post on the epidemic of sloth was just a little disingenuous because I omitted an important caveat. The report I referred to was clear that physical activity wasn’t quite the whole story. The other half of the picture is the amount of sedentary time – if moving is a plus then sitting is a minus. You could take a good dose of exercise and then wipe out the benefit by sitting at a desk for the rest of the day. This was completely new to me; Prof Cooper said that it is new to everyone because the conclusions are recent.

The importance of decreasing the amount of time you spend sitting inertly on your bum is yet another plus for cycling – a “double hit” in Prof Cooper’s words – because the time on the bike is time spent not lazing about. You might be sitting on a saddle but you are active. It’s an even bigger plus for walking because walking journeys take so long (I’m currently at the stage where I arrive half an hour early for everything because I’m still applying walking calculations and can’t quite believe how much faster the bike is).

This caveat about taking care not to sit around for most of the day is important. The finding that, on the whole, intensity is more important than duration can be easily misrepresented. The BBC Horizon documentary the truth about exercise (the full versions on youtube have unfortunately been taken down) did not exactly misrepresent things and it did spend plenty of time discussing the importance of non-sedentariness but the documentary gave a misleading overall impression. Nevertheless it was good enough to be worth looking out for repeats, if you haven’t already seen it.

The structure of the documentary resulted in a foregrounding of some research findings about capsule exercise. The findings are that it is possible to get the full benefits of exercise from a very small amount of maximum intensity exercise. In the documentary we see the presenter (the very affable, and medically trained, Michael Mosley) following a programme where he does three twenty-second intervals on an exercise bike. The idea is that you really have to go absolutely flat out – you need to be gasping and groaning at the end – but you only need do this minute’s-worth three times a week. This is quite staggering I’d agree. Unfortunately the documentary did not make it clear enough that this needs to be done in conjunction with reducing the amount of the sitting down. The programme was not structured in such a way that the central argument about exercise came through. Although all the pieces were in place it succumbed to the gosh-wow factor (perhaps from a sad lack of confidence in the mental acuity of its audience?) and this resulted in a degree of confusion. (Horizon seems to do this rather a lot).

Incidentally Prof Cooper remarked that when he presents to audiences of fellow academics and practitioners in the area of physical activity, there are always a bunch of people at the back who have deliberately chosen to stand rather than sit. That seems perhaps a little ostentatious to me, but in case you’re wondering, I’m writing this post standing at my desk, with the laptop perched on a bunch of boxfiles and I’ve been doing part of my desk work this way for a few months now.

Finally

This all seems plain enough to me. If you get to work on a bike you get some reasonably intense exercise every week day. Furthermore, the time it takes to get to work is not time spent immobile in a chair. Double hit.

This knowledge is not a big secret. “The government has been told about this. It does know … it’s up to them to do something about it” said Prof Cooper. We’ve been so battered by half-baked US rhetoric about “big government” that perhaps it needs spelling out: the government spends my taxes to do things that I cannot do on my own by means of my own individual choices. I damn well want my taxes to purchase public health by means of doing what is necessary to foster walking and cycling. Increased public health means an increase in the amount of choice you have in your individual pursuit of satisfaction. It leads to more freedom.

Advertisements

Walking and cycling compared

“What do you call a jogger with bad knees?”
“A cyclist”

Here’s some personal stuff – but it is relevant.

Despite the name, this was never intended to be a dedicated cycling blog. This was partly because I quite like buses (poor things, hardly anyone has a good word to say for them, but actually, you know, they’re great!) but mainly because I really do fly a flag for walking – not leisure walking, not driving to somewhere picturesque and then going for “a walk” – but just everyday getting about on your own two unassisted feet. The original working title of the blog was “no mean feet”.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, I used to be a rather heroic urban walker, but it is no longer the pleasure that it used to be. Since I wrote that post – in fact in the last two months – things have noticeably slumped. Yes, I need to get over myself, I know. I can walk for many miles if necessary. I stride. I’m brisk. I don’t limp (yet?). What else do I expect at the age of 54? (but dammit, this particular manifestation of the mid-fifties doesn’t happen to everyone – some people are fell-runners in their 60’s! Why me of all people? I really didn’t expect this at all). Yes, yes, I’ll be all right in a minute … but … but …the horrible fact is that a good deal of the physical pleasure has gone out of walking.

Walking is great. You get all the benefits of cycling yet it feels somehow freer because there isn’t this damn machine that you have to lug around with you, a machine that requires various kinds of coddling and fussing over and fretting about.

If you have the time to do it, walking is just fantastic. Whole books have been written about the wonderfulness of walking, its meditative aspects and its properties as a thought stimulant (I’d put John Hillaby right up there with Richard Ballantine as an inspiration). And I loved the fact that it was just a little bit eccentric to be a serious urban walker – and now that Will Self fellow gets to bang on about it and I can’t say “me too!”. A small part of my identity has just flaked off.

At its best, urban walking feels strangely transparent and effortless. It feels rather like this:

balloon over clifton bridge

The problem is that it has stopped feeling like that for me. And it never will be quite like that again.

Well, there’s an obvious solution isn’t there?

Yes indeedy. This is how cycling feels:

bleriot monoplane

It offers slightly different pleasures to walking. If feels powerful. It feels skilful. You get a wider range of physical intensity. You can go fast. You are reminded of O-level physics in a really intimate way. Fiddling with machinery is a whole daft joy in itself.

Over the last month I have done far more cycling, counted in terms of individual trips, than I have done in … well, since some time in the early 1980’s. I shall have lots to say about this shortly. Just one more thing for now though.

I do genuinely like the physical process of walking, that is true. Yet I do wonder, if I’m honest, if part of the reason I chose, for those many years, to walk rather than cycle, was that cycling felt too much trouble. That word ‘trouble’ is key. I knew, from my own experience, that cycling can be done even on the roads as they are. I knew, because I had done it in the past, that the whole vehicular-cycling thing works and will (largely) keep you safe. But it takes an effort, and the effort needed is far more mental than physical. Once you’ve got into the swing of it, it’s ok and you don’t really think about it and it seems worth doing. But once you stop for a while, it’s so difficult to get back into it as you see what a scary, stinking, unfair mess we’ve made of our urban transport system.

[Footnote. Unless otherwise attributed, all photos on this blog were taken by myself. I scraped the two pictures in this post off the web – and I didn’t find an attribution. Sorry]

Political will in Bristol

I’ve already mentioned the Bristol Cycling Manifesto, but here it is again.

The top line is that there is a petition that, if you live in Bristol and wish to do anything other than use a car for every single journey, you really should sign.

This is about political will, as (briefly) discussed yesterday. We’ve ended up with a mayor who seems to genuinely support cycling. (And George Ferguson seems to have more of a real clue about it than Boris Johnson did). Making the changes that will foster active travel is going to come up against both considerable inertia and active opposition. It can only be done if there is seen to be real support. From the numbers of people riding bikes around Bris that support is definitely there – but it needs to be seen to be there.

As well as the petition, Bristol Cycling Campaign’s freedom to ride campaign includes a framework for the infrastructure layout that would make the city easy to bike around. Here’s their cute map of what a decent Bristol cycling network ought to look like:

toptube map print version june2013

This is another way that political will can be created – you do some of the work that ought to have been done already by salaried planners, you show what things ought to be, roughly, like. You act as if the thing has already started by providing a starting point.

Did I say that I really admire people who can get this sort of thing going? I am really not an activist, I’m more of a sit-on-my-bum-and-thinkivist.

Political will

“We could do what the Netherlands did – if we had the political will”. I’ve said this kind of thing myself – and what I’ve meant is that there is nothing inevitable about our present personal transport mess, that things could have been different if different planning choices had been made, that things could well be better – if different planning choices were to be made now.

But what is this mysterious thing, “political will”? What actually causes the people who have the choice-making power to do the right thing? What makes elected politicians feel that something is “the right thing”? What heartens them to actually push things through?

I don’t subscribe to the “all politicians are scoundrels” view. I think they are in many ways like the rest of us except that they enjoy the strange game of “politics”. What I mean by this is that politicians want to be not just re-elected (so they can go on playing the game) but also to be liked and respected and to feel they have been of some use – all the things that most of us want. But (also like most of us) they usually need to be pushed into doing awkward or difficult things. So “the right thing” needs to be made easier for them.

Which is all a roundabout way of mentioning the “get Britain cycling” epetition. I’m rather sceptical about petitions, but it can’t do any harm?

Almost certainly, everyone who sees this blog has already signed, but I thought you might like to see how it’s doing. It was started in April and will stay open for one year. The idea is that it will be taken a little bit seriously if it gets to 100,000 signatures. I’ve been tracking it since the start of May and this is how it’s gone so far:

e-petition_June

Will it get to 100,000? Hmmm. Not impossible, but not by any means inevitable. I’ll give another update at the end of July.

Of course generating “political will” might be an easier task at the local level …

“Fair words butter no parsnips”

Getting shouty on the internet decorates no cakes

Polite indignation on a blog steams no broccoli

Unfortunately, the only thing that might go some small way to cooking your dinner is real world politics. Here is some modest activism from Bristol:

FTR_015_29May13

These people are from the local cycling campaign, which has just launched something called the Bristol Freedom to Ride cycling manifesto. The idea is to try to create a push, to assist a mayor who is basically sympathetic to active travel by showing support, to let loose some bold practical suggestions that can be taken up and brandished. “Thousands already cycle but our Council needs to provide a comprehensive cycling network” it sez ‘ere. Yes.

And there’s something you can sign .

[btw I haven’t abandoned this blog writing project – I’m just a bit engaged with other aspects of life, but should be back in July]

Language #3 Cyclists v People-who-ride-bikes

The idea here is that “cyclist” is not just a neutral word for a person on a bike. Instead, all sorts of extra meanings have become attached to it.

For certain people it has become a sort of horrid boo-word. “Cyclists” are those vile people who hold you up on the way to work, those demanding brats who are indulged with cycle paths and then don’t use them. “Cyclists” are endlessly whinging highway incompetents. “Cyclists” wear funny clothes, don’t pay enough tax, yada yada yada.

For certain other people, “cyclist” is a wholly positive term. It is what the sociologists call an “identity” – identity is part of “who you are” and threats to identity are painful and will be resisted.

For example, the lovely Dave Horton has recently suggested that if everyday utility cycling becomes the norm in the UK, then perhaps some current “cycling identities” will no longer be viable, because they are founded on cycling being a bit of a struggle, on those who cycle against the odds being rather heroic. Riding a bike won’t be special anymore. Being a reflective social scientist, he is aware that he has mixed feelings about this and can deal with them. Perhaps others cannot and perhaps identity-threat is involved in some of the vicious infighting which I gather has been a long-standing feature of the UK cycle-advocacy scene?

Anyway, to go back to language, the thing is that the word “cyclist”, in the current linguistic environment, suggests membership of a some sort of “group” and whether stigmatized or lauded it is a minority group. This is not what we want – what we want is cycling to become more like walking. It is rare for someone to have an identity as a “pedestrian” – I used to identify strongly as a “walker” but I’d never have called myself a “hardcore pedestrian” – it is not a real category, it’s just what everyone does when they’re not doing something else.

Even as things stand, a few minutes observation of the roads of central Bristol show that even now not everyone who pedals past is a “cyclist”. Saddles at the wrong height, gears all over the place, flapping trouser legs, bearings just screaming for some lube – there are clearly plenty of bikes whose owners regard them as mere transport rather than members of the family.

Conclusion?

Yup. “People who ride bikes” is in many cases the phrase to use in preference to “cyclists”. However, there are probably more important verbal tweaks. Ding! Next!