I recently had lunch with my friend Mike Rimoin who works at Commute Seattle and I told him about this cool public health campaign that I learned about in Copenhagen. He asked me to e-mail him a link to the image, but I decided all my dear readers might enjoy seeing this brilliant marketing piece designed by the Copenhagen Public Health Department.
“You won’t believe it…You’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!”
“Lack of daily exercise is harmful to your health, while physical activity keeps your body healthy. Cycling extends your life – daily exercise for a minimum 30 minutes extends your lifespan by up to five years.”
Makes sense, right? The human body is designed to do physical work and up until recently most humans filled their days with chores that were similar to those I had at Sheardrum Farm—like chopping wood, bailing hay, building fences, harvesting vegetables, tiling floors, and running away from the angry flock of male geese that were constantly trying to bite me.
Those are chores I likely won’t do, or at least won’t need to do, for a long time. I hope to volunteer on a farm again at some point, but the marketable skills I have—you know, the skills that result in a paycheck and health care benefits—those are nearly all executed by tapping my fingers across a keyboard, going to meetings, and talking on the phone. I’m an “information worker” and you probably are too. 38 percent of Americans worked on farms at the beginning of the 20th century, but by the year 2000 that figure had dropped to 3 percent. Employment in production industries—where jobs involve physical labor—like construction, forestry, and manufacturing also dropped from 31 percent to 19 percent of the workforce over the course of the 20th century.1 The American labor force is now dominated by professional, technical, and service workers. This shift towards sedentary occupations and living is happening all over the world. The World Health Organization reports that, “60 to 85 percent of people in the world—from both developed and developing countries—lead sedentary lifestyles.” We’re living in the Information Age and the Information Age is happening around conference tables, at desks, and in front of computers.
How bad could all this sitting around really be? Could sedentary living become the salient public health crisis of the Information Age? The World Health Organization thinks so: “Sedentary living is one of the more serious yet insufficiently addressed public health problems of our time. Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.” 2 So, too much sitting around (sedentary living) is in fact wreaking havoc on our health, but how much movement do people need to incorporate into their daily routine to be healthier?
While I was in Denmark I interviewed Lars Bo Anderson, an exercise epidemiologist at the University of Southern Denmark, to understand the health benefits of switching from passive forms of transportation to active forms of transportation. Professor Anderson did a longitudinal study of almost 15,000 cycling Danes and gathered information about the amount of time they spent pedaling each week. He found that among this cohort the relative risk of death was lower than one—meaning that because all the subjects cycled for some amount of time each week they were all reducing their risk of death to some degree. Here’s an excerpt from a paper he wrote about the study:
After adjustment for age, sex, BMI, smoking, educational level, systolic blood pressure, cholesterol and other physical activity than cycling, relative risk of death was 0.70 among those who spent the most time cycling (>7 hour per week) and 0.78 for those with the shortest distance (<3 hour per week).
Essentially, his research shows that just a few hours of commuter cycling per week can make you live longer—and the more time you spend pedaling the longer you’re likely to live. Professor Anderson has also quantified how decreasing rates of cycling in Denmark have impacted mortality. Cycling in Copenhagen is on the rise, but in many of the smaller Danish towns the car has begun to dominate the roads. Over the last 30 years, 15 percent of the total population has stopped cycling and Professor Anderson’s analysis concludes that this behavior change has increased the number of deaths by 4.8 percent or 2,880 deaths/year in Denmark.
Health isn’t all about the number of years we live. Good health and fitness improve our quality of life and we all want our children to have the best quality of life we can provide for them. Professor Anderson’s research shows that commuter cycling can greatly benefit the health and fitness of children. A study of 529 9-year-old children and 390 15-year-old adolescents showed that the Danish students who cycled to school—rather than using passive transport—had an 8 percent higher cardiorespiratory fitness level. The commuting behaviors of the 9-year-olds were tracked for six years and Professor Anderson and his team were able to document how commuting habits impacted health over time.
Among the children who at age 9 were passive travelers, some of them changed to cycling, and in the follow-up analysis these children had 9% higher fitness than their peers who stayed passive travelers. Children who stopped cycling decreased similarly. This observation could indicate that the higher fitness was not just a selection bias where the fittest chose commuter cycling, but that the difference in fitness was caused by the traveling mode.
The commute to school is a fitness (and adventure) opportunity! An opportunity most American kids are missing out on because their parents drive them to school. The US Center for Disease Control reports that childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years (20 percent of American children are currently obese). The rise in childhood obesity seems to correlate somewhat strikingly with the rise in the number of children being driven to school. The American Safe Routes to School Partnership reports that 41 percent of children who live less than one mile from their school arrive and depart each day in an automobile.
Many of us have become Information Age laborers—we spend the day writing reports, responding to e-mails, analyzing data, designing software programs, and talking to customers on the phone. We’ve got a lot to be optimistic about as we move deeper into the Information Age, but we can’t forget that the Information Age is vastly changing the way we use (or don’t use) our bodies. Our bodies are designed to move, they must move. Personal survival and prosperity have been inherently linked to physical exertion for most of human history. Only very recently has putting food on the table been possible by working at a desk for 40-60 hours a week. Unless we truly embed exercise into our daily routine, most information workers will spend several days a week or more being sedentary. Before I started bike commuting I would sometimes go weeks without exercising. I’m a former college athlete and love playing sports, but after starting a demanding consulting job shortly after college I sometimes just couldn’t find the time for fitness. There were weeks when there were just too many work and social commitments. When I’d go through these spells of inactivity I’d begin to feel lethargic, anxious, and unhealthy—and I’d have to force myself out on a run or to the gym. Now I don’t have to force myself to do anything. I just get on my bike when I need to go somewhere (and much of the time biking is actually faster than taking the bus or driving + looking for parking). I don’t have any quantitative medical evidence to prove this, but I do feel like daily bike commuting has really improved my fitness and overall health. During the first year I started bike commuting I lost about six or seven pounds. I don’t think anyone else really noticed it, but over the course of the year I’d step on a scale occasionally and be happily surprised. I hadn’t set out to lose weight, it just happened. My body seemed to really respond to daily and moderate exercise in a way that no amount of “weekend warrior” activities could compete with.
It’s good that we don’t have to spend our days toiling on a farm in order to have enough food to eat. We’ve arrived at a place in history where technological progress has allowed many of us to devote our energy to mental pursuits like science, business, art, law, medicine, public policy, and blogging about biking. These mental pursuits are exciting, challenging, and at times all-consuming, but we have to remember that we simply weren’t meant to be sedentary creatures. In the words of one of my favorite readers, Ric Cochrane, “we have to make a commitment to returning the human race to an active, working, sweating way of life.” How do we do that? We make investments. We invest in bike infrastructure and robust bike share programs like New York City is doing so that active transportation and recreation is an affordable option for millions residents who would otherwise be sedentary. We invest in public health. Marc van Woudenberg in Amsterdam compared bicycle infrastructure to water treatment facilities. Water treatment facilities, in most parts of the developed world, are a public expense that everyone (regardless of their politics) agrees is a worthwhile, necessary investment of tax dollars. We all know that dirty water makes people sick and the Dutch know that if their cycle infrastructure suddenly disappeared it would take a serious toll on their public health.
Many people are so quick to assume that cycling is dangerous without considering the fact that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. Lack of exercise is one of the primary causes of heart disease. The Copenhagen Public Health Department said it perfectly: “You won’t believe it…you’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!”