Tuesday 18 June 2013

Health, Wealth and Happiness. The benefits of cycling last through your life

I made three short videos during the study tour two weeks ago. As it happens, all three of them show children and teenagers using the cycling infrastructure in one way or another.

A cycle-path through a residential area in Assen followed by a crossing which is safe for all to use

Teenagers in one corner of a park in Groningen. It was a sunny afternoon, so thousands of people had ridden their bikes to different corners of this and other parks. It's similar if you cycle to the beach.

In this video there's not so much cycling as walking. 6000 people, mostly from primary schools around Assen, take part each year in the local Avondvierdaagse. Participants walk 10 km each day on four consecutive evenings. Because of the number of people taking part they often cause a little disruption on roads and cycle-paths in and around the city, but this isn't the sort of thing that any reasonable person would complain about.

Most, if not all, towns in the Netherlands have an event like this, modelled after the internationally famous Nijmegse Vierdaagse. The Nijmegen event attracts an amazing 45000 participants who each walk a minimum of 50 km per day (reduced to 40 km per day for people under 20 or over 50 years old) for four days in order to earn their medal.

Why are children important ?
Why do I concentrate so much on young cyclists ? That's easy to answer. Today's children are the only possible source of tomorrow's adult cyclists and children are a common interest of the whole population. Children love to cycle and cycling is a transport mode which can offer children a greater degree of freedom and affordability than anything else that is open to them.

If we don't "get them when they're young", i.e. at the age when the affordability and freedom offer a unique combination then we must instead try to convince older people to take up cycling when they've already formed a habit of travelling by other means and when they can more easily afford other means.

Under 18s in The Netherlands make a huge proportion of their
by bike. 0.8 journeys per day for under 12s, 1.7
journeys per day for 12 to 16 year olds. Adults cycle less but
even over 75s make an average of one trip every three days.
Countries which fail to achieve a high cycling rate amongst the young will struggle even more to achieve it amongst adults.

Promoting cycling for everyday journeys is not the same as promoting it as a sport. As others have noted before, sports like swimming or playing tennis are worthy but they are of no use to travel to school or to visit friends. But cycling requires something that other "sports" do not. While any road design will suffice in order to transport people to a swimming pool or tennis court, those same roads very possibly will not suffice so far as making cycling attractive and accessible enough that people who are not cycling enthusiasts will see riding a bike as something for them. To achieve a high modal share amongst young children and teenagers requires our streets and cycle-paths to be so subjectively safe that not only do children feel safe, but that all their parents expect them to be safe as well. This is how the point is reached where children are given the freedom to travel independently.

Adult obesity in OECD countries. Can they be compared
directly ? As some are "self-reported", methodologies
clearly vary between countries.
The avondvierdaagse youtube video (above) was made public a few days ago and one of the first comments asked "Where are the overweight children?". According to the figures I've seen, obesity levels in the Netherlands are somewhat lower than those of many other countries, but not actually near the lowest.

As for what proportion of children are obese, that's difficult to judge. Some figures put this as high as 7% of the total, which would mean you'd expect to see two obese children in each classroom. Is this true ? I don't actually know as I don't work in a school and I've never studied this. It seems high, though. To my eyes there are obviously fewer really large people here than in the UK and that's despite our province, Drenthe, being worse than average for The Netherlands as a whole. I am given to wonder whether differences in methodology of reporting obesity might mean that little can be learned from the comparison of figures which come from different countries. I've seen the same thing with cycling modal share figures, which are almost never gathered in the same way in different countries. In fact, there are often several different conflicting figures available for modal share even for the same town.

Dutch children have the same taste for overly fatty food and soft drinks as those who live elsewhere. However, unlike children elsewhere, the great majority of Dutch children walk or cycle to school. It doesn't stop with getting to school, though. School trips are by bike too (including regular weekly trips to play sports) and children make trips to go shopping, visit friends or buy fast food by bike as well. Without the cycling habit (12 to 16 year olds each make an average of about 1.7 trips by bike each day), it is very likely that obesity would be a bigger problem here than it is.

UNICEF Index of child
well-being. High cycling
countries in orange.
Health, Wealth and Happiness for everyone
In my view, adults owe the next generation the best start in life and the best future we can possibly provide them. If children can cycle then they already have a head start. The freedom of Dutch children is a good part of what makes this country score so well on the UNICEF index.

However, we could also do what is required to enable mass cycling purely for selfish reasons. Let's pretend for a moment that we're not bothered at all about children. Just for the next few paragraphs, think only of the adults...

Dutch doctors find that cycling helps to treat many ills amongst adults. Dutch companies gain a competitive advantage due to their cycling employees. The tax payer gains because when all the costs and benefits are worked out, it's cheaper to build high quality cycle facilities than not to build them. Motorists benefit because more cycling results in fewer traffic jams.

The advantages of cycling keep on adding up, but in order to reap these rewards it is necessary to build infrastructure which offers everyone a very high degree of both safety and convenience.

If we're to achieve mass cycling amongst adults we have to enable it for children so that the pattern is established and can continue through their entire life. Not only is cycling good for physical health, but also for mental health. Happy and healthy children have a better chance of becoming happy and healthy adults.
Teenagers ride home three abreast from their school 17 km away while young children riding a shorter distance in the opposite direction are overtaken by racing cyclists. All these people, and myself as well, need the same infrastructure i.e. that which is easy to understand and offers direct and safe journeys. This consistent high quality experience can be achieved where there are cycle-paths and where there are not. Why aim for anything less ?
A new version of the UNICEF report was published in April. The Netherlands is still in first place, Finland, Sweden and Germany are still within the top six.


Jitensha Oni said...

You're absolutely right, but these are arguments that do not seem to figure high in the priorities of UK town planners. All the high profile infra that is being proposed or has been built (poor or not) is along major commuting routes of immediate economic significance, not routes to school. That's a major part of the problem here - the focus. Of course you need much tighter "tolerances" if you design for kids/disabled/elderly so to keep the lawyers and accountants happy it's probably best not to disturb the status quo too much, and keep the responsibility skewed to the road user, not the builder - Poynton regeneraton anyone? So keep wearing the helmets UK folks, as the Hembrow clock continues to tick!

Anonymous said...

You are right when you say that different countries measure obesity with different measures. According to the document about obesity in Drenthe, in the Netherlands people are considered 'overweight' when their BMI is over 25 and 'obese' when over 30.

This is an outrage!

For instance, I am a Dutch woman of 47 years and measuring 173cm (which is but and inch above average for a Dutch woman) and I am indeed, at the moment, a good twenty kilos overweight (according to the BMI I'm obese). If you were to see me, you might notice the bellyfat, but apart from that you might call me, at the most, 'chubby'. I'm not happy with my weight, but it's the result of a few years of several medically and emotionally taxing years. Working at it though.
However, ten years ago, when I was at the peak of health and fitness level, I weighed 80 kilos. I have never weighed less than 80 kilos after reaching puberty AND I was fit, trim, with a flat tummy. I worked out at the gym, and had a figure I can only think longingly off today. I got wolf-whistled, f'r crying out loud.
According to the BMI, a 37 yo woman of 173 cm length and weighing 80 kilos has a BMI of 26.7, and is considered OVERWEIGHT.
Had I been 90 kilos (which would make me look slightly chubby, think Nigella Lawson), my BMI would've been 30! With a figure a la the Domestic Goddess, I would've been considered OBESE!!

Now, I'm the first to tell you that I'm not happy with my weight right now. I would love to lose at least ten kilos, as this would not only look better, but I would *feel* better. However, I can still run to catch the train, I can still cycle for miles (I'm a part-time postie and I deliver my mail by bike) and I certainly don't waddle while I walk or have lard-filled hips that are wider than my shoulders, which is the image I have when thinking of 'obese' women (you know, like those stone age 'Venus' carvings)

Are there chubby children in the Netherlands? Sure. A few. Go to an amusement park with a couple of hundred Dutch kids, and you'll see a handful of chubby children. But really obese children.. The kind we think of when thinkinf of the USA or UK..? Oh, I'm sure they exist in the Netherlands, but I, for one, have never seen one.

However, if you use a BMI of 30 as the cut-off point for obesity, you'll get plenty of statistics - which tell you nothing!

Koen said...

One of the reasons there are no fat kids in the avondvierdaagse video is, of course, that overweight children prefer not to attend this sort of activity. It's quite hard to walk 10 km when you're overweight and not used to any excercise.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the rant above, but the Body Mass Index (or Baloney Measuring Index, as one might call it) makes my blood boil...

You know what I think of why there are so many 'overweight' and 'obese' children in that paper when we see virtually none on the streets? Because an active lifestyle (sports, cycling) builds muscle and denser bones. Muscle weighs more than fat. This is why athletes generally have a BMI of over 30 and are deemed 'obese'.


I'd bet my last cent that if you would take a kid from Assen with a BMI of 25 and a kid from the UK or the US of the same age with the same BMI, you'll see two radically different kids. The one rides forty miles each day to school and back while the other gets driven everywhere by mom or dad. Guess which one has the denser bones and strong leg muscles from riding against strong headwinds and which one has the flabby tummy?

Really, for the life of me I can't understand why anybody, let alone medical practitioners or government statisticians, would use the BMI, a 200 year old mathematical equasion which cares nothing about WHAT it measures, be it fat or muscle, and which was developed when medical science still thought that letting evil humors escape by bloodletting, as a medical tool!!


Eric said...


BMI is still used because it is easy to calculate, using just two factors (height and weight) which anyone can easily measure, and because the correlation (not causation) with adverse health effects is well-established.

For instance, recent large-scale study (doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.049569) involving 379000 people in 9 European countries over 13 years found that people with a BMI over 30 have a 28% higher chance of dying (the worst adverse health effect one can have...) compared to those with a BMI between 19 and 30.

Of course there are some healthy and fit people whose BMI is inflated because of their muscles, but that doesn't change the fact that most people with a BMI of over 30 have an increased risk of disease and death.

Anonymous said...


But Eric, it's far easier, and a far better method, measuring the waistline-height ratio.