Biking to Beat Obesity

The use of automobiles worldwide is on the rise. This has had a major impact on health and lifestyles across the globe.

Barry Popkin is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Center of Obesity at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He has conducted global research on the effects of diet and environmental factors on health.

“In the last 50 to 60 years, in the post world war era, in both the U.S. and the other high-income countries, we’ve had a slow shift in the way we live so we’ve become more sedentary, our diets have become much richer and sweeter and we have, in the process, become much more heavy,” Popkin said.

Gary Gardner, a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch Institute, says this is having a dire effect on people. “Obesity in the United States is at epidemic levels,” Gardner said. “Something like 60 percent, something like two-thirds of Americans, adult Americans, today are overweight or obese and the trend is upward.”

While the statistics are not encouraging, Popkin offers a solution.

“We need to realize that being physically active has benefits to us beyond the issues of weight. Being physically active is very important for our development and our aging and those who are active in childhood and adulthood,” Popkin said.

“Women are much less likely to have osteoporosis if they’re physically active and move more when they’re young. And, for both men and women, cardiovascular health. Several cancers are related to inactivity,” Popkin added. “In other words, if you increase your physical activity throughout adulthood, you’ll reduce your risk of several cancers and you’ll certainly reduce your risk of being diabetic, getting hypertension and having cardiovascular disease in general.”

This problem is not isolated to adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control 26 percent of children 15 and under are clinically obese or overweight. The study also found that only two percent of children were biking or walking to school, down from 60 percent 40 years ago.

As a result of this report, Congressman James Oberstar, Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the U.S. House of Representatives, created the Safe Routes to School initiative to encourage young people to walk and bike to school.

“We’re raising a whole generation of young people who are mobility challenged and furthermore the incidence of type two diabetes, that is acquired diabetes, among young people 15 and under had doubled in less than five years and it seemed to me that the way to attack this health crisis epidemic of obesity was to get children biking and walking to school again,” Oberstar said.

Despite the current statistics on obesity and inactivity, Congressman Oberstar is optimistic about the future. “We’re changing the habits of an entire generation of Americans and we’re going to continue those investments out into the future,” he said.

Gardner believes bikes are part of the answer. “Bicycles can make a difference in terms of obesity,” Gardner said. “Just by riding 20, 30 minutes a day, that’s the kind of exercise that can make a difference between a person becoming overweight and not becoming overweight.”

Both Gardner and Oberstar agree the issue is a serious one, and getting people to use bicycles instead of cars may be the solution.