World Health Day – cycling’s contribution to health

Sunday 7 April, marks World Health Day, organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) since 1950 to raise awareness over pressing health issues around the globe.

As more and more people worldwide realise, the humble bicycle can play an important role in overcoming health challenges, not least by:

World Bicycle Relief, is putting bicycles in the hands of some of the most impoverished communities on the planet - making a real difference to health and wellbeing. Community Health Volunteers often have to walk long distances to reach patients across rugged terrain. With a bicycle, those Volunteers can visit 45% more patients and provide a more attentive service. Between 2005 and 2016, World Bicycle Relief provided Community Health Volunteers with 138,310 bicycles.

World Health Day is also an opportunity to communicate the positive contribution to better health that can be made by a more bicycle-friendly world. More cycling - as a sport, leisure activity and mode of transport - means a more physically active population in a world where research is increasingly proving the necessity of physical activity.

In October 2018, the first study estimating global physical activity trends over time was released, with headline findings that are cause for concern.

The WHO study, published in the medical journal the Lancet, found that in 2016, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men worldwide did not do enough physical activity to stay healthy. The problem is more pronounced in high-income countries, where levels of insufficient physical activity are more than twice as high as in low income countries. Further, levels of inactivity in rich countries worsened by 5% between 2001 and 2016. The quarter of the globe’s population not sufficiently active in 2016 face greater risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some forms of cancers.

In reaction to the study, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) stressed the important role that cycling can play in confronting this challenge, with ECF’s Dr Randy Rzewnicki commenting: “We can save 100,000 lives in Europe each year if every adult adds 15 minutes of walking or cycling.”

The recommended weekly amount of physical activity for adults (18-64) is 150 minutes at moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. Nevertheless, physical inactivity causes an estimated 5.3 million deaths each year, and health professionals in many countries are campaigning for change.

The WHO’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030 (GAPPA), calls for a more active world, pointing to cycling - in all forms - as a means to improve health. Taking into account the inevitable decline in occupational and domestic physical activity due to economic and technological evolution, the GAPPA highlights the need to encourage transport and leisure-time physical activity, particularly in emerging economies.

As the idea of ‘social prescribing’ gains popularity in the medical profession, doctors are starting to prescribe cycling to their patients. Going a step further, some doctors are becoming cycling advocates. Given the respect for physicians in society, their active voice in favour of cycling can be highly persuasive.

They can encourage patients to cycle more for exercise, assisting them in overcoming barriers to being more active, while helping educate the wider public about the health benefits of cycling. Importantly they can lobby for hospitals and clinics to be more accessible by bike, with safe infrastructure and secure bicycle storage for staff, patients and visitors.

They can lobby city leaders to invest in cycling as a healthy mode of transport. In Toronto, Canada, medics formed a group called Doctors for Safe Cycling, acting as advocates for better cycling infrastructure.

Meanwhile, promoting active travel to work has been found to lead to more productive organisations, with happier, healthier staff. According to a report recently produced by Transport for London, employees in the UK who cycle regularly take 1.3 fewer annual sick days compared to those who don’t - worth £128m every year to the economy. Cycling makes staff more productive, with 73% saying they felt the activity made them more productive, and 54% declaring they felt happy and energised during their ride to work.