So it seems the UK government has decided it’s next task is to wage a war on obesity. It’s already clamped down hard on opportunities to smoke (for the better in my opinion) and is showing signs of curtailing our binge drinking culture—if you consider the introduction of 24 hour drinking as a curtailment.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this (which could take a whole ramble in itself) it’s clear the government’s philosophy is to help us because we can’t help ourselves.
With New Year Resolutions being optimistically made across the land the government has decided to add more hot air with a new campaign against the entirely foreseeable obesity crisis. Part of the advice that is ritually given out in these initiatives is the need for more exercise in conjunction with reduced calorie consumption and cycling is always pointed to as an easy way to get more exercise.
But there’s a flaw in this thinking. The most obvious one is that cycling more is not actually that easy to do. Don’t believe me? Here’s some reasons.
- The people who need to exercise more don’t have time to. Our country’s long working hour ethic is not likely to reduce during the recession and for lots of people their lives are spent either sitting in front of computer screens or commuting to and from work. It’s hard to get them on a bike at all.
- Riding a bike requires faff. A lot of it. For example to ride a bike regularly you need a bike, a crash helmet, a toolkit, a bike lock, the ability to mend punctures, a wind/waterproof, some gloves, front and rear lights, a back pack to hold stuff in and so on. That’s a daunting barrier to someone who doesn’t have the same enthusiasm for riding we mountain bikers have.
- Cycle shops, with few exceptions are not welcoming places. Every one seems to major on road or mountain bike themes, staff are rarely welcoming (the barricade-behind-the-counter-and-not-make-eye-contact mentality) and if you want a quick fix you’ll find most repair shops are booked out for the next two weeks and cost a fortune. And you always get told what you really want is too old/out of date/no longer available/not as good as new shiny part X and so on. Scary to me as a regular, terrifying to Mr/Mrs/Ms Occasional Cyclist.
- Riding a bike to any social interaction (including just going to the shops) leaves you hot and sweaty and probably in need of a change of clothing. I don’t mind that when I go for a mountain bike ride because I always return home and take a shower but if commuting to work, going down the pub or to the shops it’s a different matter. And that matter matters a lot to lots of people.
- Our infrastructure is working against us. The roads are not in good enough condition, cycle lanes are both daft and frightening, the traffic wants to kill you and the best opportunity to interface with public transport is when you get crushed by a bendy bus.
- The perception is there’s a cyclists versus other road users mentality, a particularly damaging perception. The whole ‘with us or against us’ thing is not only stupid (most riders have cars and pay for a road fund licence and cycling provision makes up close to zero in the roads budget anyway) but it also forces potential riders to think what side of the fence they really want to be on. And it’s not the one without a nice steel barrier between them and everyone else.
So to my mind, the idea that people will start riding their bikes more is fanciful to say the least. It leads on to thinking about what can be done to get people to ride.
Well, first of all you need to motivate people to exercise at all. There’s few people in this country, whatever their size, who don’t want to look and feel better. If they don’t they’re likely lying to themselves or being purposely or militantly contrarian. So you’re starting from a good base in general.
If that’s the case, don’t lecture people! Don’t keep telling them how bad obesity is, we know all that!! Sell the benefits as they say in all sales courses. Promote what you can do when you’re well, how you have more energy, can play with your kids, look and feel more attractive, live better. Long term health problems are too abstract a stick, it didn’t work for smoking, isn’t working for drinking and won’t work for obesity; push the feel great angle as hard as possible.
Second, I’ve gained a handful of pounds since my injury. I’m skinny; if anything underweight yet I know I’m not where I am most comfortable. For me I’m determined to shift the weight to get back to what is right for me and my sport. But if I left it and gained a handful more pounds I reckon I’d have a hard time losing the weight. Losing weight is hard and gaining weight is easy. That must be recognised in any determined effort to lose weight.
Thirdly, take an integrated approach. The cycling experience is bad for riding in general? Improve everything: workplace culture so it’s based on results not hours; train facilities to carry more bikes; easy bike hire schemes (Vélib style); secure, clean and well lit storage for bikes integrated with a cheap bike service facility at commuter ‘hubs’; road quality and cycle lane provision Copenhagen style; prioritise cyclists in urban areas; encourage employers to provide high quality showering and changing facilities; provide fantastic public facilities.
With such measure, things would change and not just for cycling but running, walking and most other physical activities. And I hope they do.