Fight Obesity With 10 Miles of Cycle Tracks Per State

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Photo Tobyotter via flickr.

Harvard's Anne Lusk is a Department of Nutrition researcher extremely interested in the ways bicycles can help our overweight society. Her most recent publication documents research she and colleagues did using data from the famous Nurses Health Study II and compared biking and fast walking and their surprising role in keeping women slimmer..for just a few minutes of exercise each day.

"Adult obesity rates increased in 28 states in the past year, and declined only in the District of Columbia. More than two-thirds of states (38) have adult obesity rates above 25 percent." - F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future report

Lusk and colleagues looked at weight change among the more than 18,000 participants in the Study between 1989 and 2005, as well as the odds of gaining more than 5% of body weight over that time period.

What they found was that the women in the study that briskly walked or cycled 30 minutes a day controlled their weight much more easily than women who engaged in "slow walking." And even women who hadn't cycled at the 1989 data point who were cycling just five minutes a day by 2005 gained less weight than the non bikers. Sadly, on average women gain about 20 pounds every 16 years, if the gain patterns of nurses can be extrapolated to the general female population.

In addition, the study found that women of normal weight who walked briskly or cycled for about 4 hours per week had a lower odds of gaining more than 5% of body weight. Bicycling, Lusk and colleagues concluded, is similar to brisk walking in that it is associated with less weight gain than slow walking.

This may at first glance seem like no great shakes - but as Lusk said, while there is a lot of data on walking and health and weight management, there's very little on cycling and health, which makes these results interesting. The Nurses Study reveals that cycling has positive effects on women for not very much time invested, even though the researchers didn't know what kind of cycling the nurses were doing - stationary or outdoors - nor at what intensity they were pedaling.

Lusk said while the research was damning of slow walking, as it didn't seem to help the women in the study keep their weight in check, biking can now be seen in more positive light for weight control and obesity control.

"The message is, we need to get out of cars and do something," Lusk said. "Please do anything - walking is good, just not too slow, or biking at a comfortable pace."

In fact, Lusk thinks the problem of U.S. obesity is so great, that she has gotten a green light from Harvard's School of Public Health to pursue the creation of of legislation in the next Transportation Reauthorization Bill to require putting at least 10 miles of cycle tracks in each U.S. state.

While that may seem to some to be such a tiny amount of cycle track as to be insignificant, Lusk said it has two great advantages.

The first is that she believes that one of bicycling's (unproven) benefits is that it can be incorporated into the normal routine of a day, as opposed to say, a gym visit that requires a separate trip and separate planning for most people. Once you are on a bicycle, Lusk believes, there's also a chance you'll ride farther and get in more exercise than with when brisk walking because of built-in momentum.

Most important, Lusk said, is for non-bike-friendly areas to take a first stab at providing cycle tracks, because once they've got the first 10 miles, people will start biking, and demand more infrastructure.

Lusk is hoping her "10 Miles of Cycle Tracks Per State" initiative might be introduced into the next Transportation Reauthorization Bill, and she is working on Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to support the idea.

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