Miracle Pill Found for Fighting COVID-19: The Bicycle

In the UK they will be prescribing them, along with better diets.

Boris Johnson taking a spin with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Boris Johnson taking a spin with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 John Phillips/UK Press via Getty Images

In Britain, family doctors (GPs or General Practitioners in the UK) will soon be prescribing bicycles as a way of getting their patients to lose weight and increase their level of fitness. Prime Minister Boris Johnson used to balk at such "nanny state" interventions, but he was hospitalized for a serious case of COVID-19 and has changed his tune. According to the CEO of the National Health Service (NHS) "The evidence is in: obesity can double your chance of dying from coronavirus. So this pandemic is a call to arms to change what we eat and how we exercise." 

The bikes are one part of a larger campaign to improve the health of the British, who according to Toby Helm & Denis Campbell of the Guardian, have a weight problem:

Two-thirds (63%) of UK adults are above a healthy weight, with 36% overweight and 28% obese. Alarmingly, one in three children aged 10 to 11 are overweight or obese.

A Government spokesperson explains:

Covid-19 has given us all a wake-up call [on] the immediate and long-term risks of being overweight, and the prime minister is clear we must use this moment to get healthier, more active and eat better. We will be urging the public to use this moment to take stock of how they live their lives, and to take simple steps to lose weight, live healthier lives, and reduce pressure on the NHS.

In countries like Britain or Canada with nationalized medicine, there is much more of an incentive to keep people healthy and out of the hospital in the first place, since the costs are paid through taxes. 

Carlton Reid notes in Forbes that “active travel” such as walking and cycling, can play an important role in reducing obesity levels, and points to an article by Peter Walker in the Guardian where he called cycling a "Miracle Pill" that could save the health care system:

Imagine if a team of scientists devised a drug which massively reduced people’s chances of developing cancer or heart disease, cutting their overall likelihood of dying early by 40%. This would be front page news worldwide, a Nobel prize as good as in the post. That drug is already here, albeit administered in a slightly different way: it’s called cycling to work.
High quality bike lane in London
High quality bike lane in London.  John Keeble/ Getty Images

As we have noted before, this is not so easy as riding a bike. For people to feel comfortable and be willing to try it, they need safe places to ride and secure places to lock their bikes. So the government is also going to be "spending huge sums on segregated cycle lanes and secure cycle parking as well as developing low-traffic neighbourhoods."

Twitter is agog, complaining that obesity is more complicated than just putting people on bikes, that the poor suffer more from obesity and can't afford bikes, and a cabbie tweeted that "this is just a gimmick by Boris and the cycle lobby to put bums on bikes." Of course, it is more complicated, and the plan is also looking at strategies including limits on advertising for junk food and a ban on two-for-one promotions. Calories will have to be displayed on menus "to help people make healthier choices." And they are going after alcohol:

A new consultation will be launched before the end of the year on plans to provide calorie labelling on alcohol. Alcohol consumption has been estimated to account for nearly 10% of the calorie intake of those who drink, with around 3.4 million adults consuming an additional days’ worth of calories each week – totalling an additional two months of food each year. But research shows the majority of the public (80%) is unaware of the calorie content of common drinks and many typically underestimate the true content. It is hoped alcohol labelling could lead to a reduction in consumption, improving people’s health and reducing their waistline.

Johnson did a good summary for the BBC about what he learned from his own COVID-19 experience:

So you asked about my own personal circumstances, and one of the lessons I drew from that is the need for us all to be fitter and healthier. And if we’re fitter and healthier by the way, we will also be happier.

The bikes are getting all the attention, but it's about more than that. The campaign will "will tap into the zeitgeist of people’s desire to reset their relationship with their diet and exercise regimes after four months of lockdown," to try and get them healthier before a possible second wave of the virus in the fall. 

Perhaps Arnold can bring this plan back to North America, with its own obesity and health crises; many of us could use a reset in our relationships with cars and food.