Pedaling Towards Better Health by Mathew Honan

I tried everything. Patches, gum, pills, willpower; you name it and I tried it. For 13 years I smoked a pack of cigarettes and some change every day. Marlboros book-ended my days, and consumed my every spare moment. But for the last several years that I smoked, all I wanted to do was to quit. And I couldn't, I found it completely impossible. Impossible, that is, until I started commuting to work every day on my bike. After just a few weeks, I found that I was smoking less and less every day. Within a few months, I was a non-smoker.

MYTH: You inhale more pollution on a bike than in a car.
FACT:Motorists breath about 60 percent more carbon monoxide than cyclists do.
Like millions of other Americans, I found better health through cycling. At 29, I'm in the best shape of my entire life. I'm much healthier than I ever have been, even as a teen. Yet mine is an accidental health. I had no intention of getting into shape. I wasn't shooting for thinner thighs in 30 days, buns of steel, or even a lower resting heart rate. I was just sick of riding Muni, and thought that I might be able to get downtown faster on my bike. Yet somewhere in between Beale Street and Masonic Avenue, I found an incredible side effect to a faster route: health.

Getting people out of their cars (or off the bus in my case) and onto bicycles not only benefits traffic patterns, it also benefits the health of our entire society.

"Physical activity, [not] smoking, and a healthy diet are three things that can prevent about 700,000 deaths a year," says Ann Seeley, Active Community Coordinator for the California Department of Health Services. "Couch potatoes lead to about 30,000 deaths alone. The cost of obesity is about $44 billion. If we committed the money for fat pills and Viagra, and in turn put it in a community infrastructure that supported biking and walking, we would have a much healthier country."

Indeed, even moderate amounts of exercise can result in major health benefits. Regular cycling puts you at lower risk for coronary heart disease, strokes, non-Insulin dependent diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity. A 1996 report from the Surgeon General on physical activity and health found that for exercise to be effective, it need not be strenuous. For example, a study in Copenhagen, Denmark, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, tracked commuters over a 14-year period, comparing cyclists with those who drove to and from work every day. It found that those who cycled daily, at least three hours a week, had a 40 percent lower mortality rate than those who took a sedentary route to work.

And although there are certainly dangers associated with riding your bike to work - from car doors to Muni buses to jaywalkers - they are greatly outweighed by the health benefits, according to the British Medical Association. Furthermore, if you do take a spill, chances are your cycling will help you recover more quickly from it. A report from the UK's National Cycling Strategy, which launched in 1996 with the goal of doubling the number of cycling trips by 2002 and quadrupling them by 2012, found that in addition to being beneficial for your joints, the increased muscle strength and improved coordination you get from regular cycling makes you less likely to fall, or to be injured if you do fall.

Even the perception that cycling leaves you choking on the exhaust of cars in the roadway is incorrect. A European Commission publication called "Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities" found that motorists breathed about 60 percent more carbon monoxide than cyclists did. Oddly enough, the very act of increased respiration helps you resist the pollutants that you're breathing in and out. Meanwhile, by getting out of a car and onto a bike, you're helping to make the air healthier for everyone to breathe. All of which is why California is working to become a more bike-friendly state.

"My program is to promote physical activity so that people have fewer chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, or high blood pressure," says Seeley, who has spent the last four years funding cycling initiatives through the California Bicycle Coalition. "It's amazing how much of health is linked to lifestyle. We know that if people lead healthy lifestyles, we can prevent a quarter of chronic diseases. But you can't just tell people that. You need to change the social and physical environment, rather than just educating them. Local bicycle coalitions have the know-how to change the environment."

That work seems to be paying off. In October, Governor Gray Davis signed the Safe Routes to School bill, which is expected to provide approximately $70 million over the next three years for new sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, and other projects to encourage students to walk or bike to school. Locally, our Board of Supervisors—the most bike-friendly one we've had in years—has approved a slew of measures that will encourage cycling, ranging from more bike lanes to more bike parking to stricter fines for drivers parking in bike lanes.

San Francisco Director of Public Health Dr. Mitch Katz knows that more bike commuters make a healthier city. Photo by Eileen Shields
Dr. Mitch Katz, Director of San Francisco's Public Health Department and a bike commuter, is another key endorser of bicycling's health effects: "I ride my bicycle to work everyday because with my busy work schedule I don't have enough time to do aerobic exercise at a gym. Bicycling to work and to meetings guarantees that I get a minimum of 50 minutes of aerobic exercise every day. The exercise helps relieve the tension from my job; also, staying in shape makes me feel better about myself."

So get on your bike. Because it's not just a fun and faster way to get around - it's good for you, and good for the city too.