Pedalling for the Body & the Mind

3 min. read
Lucas Snaije is the Content & Communications Manager for BYCS and the editor of BYCS Perspectives.

In March, many countries reached the symbolic one year mark since first lockdowns began. The progressive build-up of fatigue, even for those whose situation has felt relatively stable and comfortable, is beginning to weigh heavily. The disruptions and restrictions on movement and gatherings, and the intense deceleration of social life more broadly, have resulted in the heightening of two existing crises: one of insufficient physical activity and one of mental health. In the very early stages of the pandemic, we were advocating for the bicycle to be positioned as a way to carry out physical exercise, to reduce stress and anxiety by reducing a sense of entrapment, and as a way to maintain some degree of distanced, social interaction. A year later, it is emerging as a vital tool for a sustainable recovery, and must be centred in our efforts to combat this twofold crisis.

Every week, new scientific studies highlight the silent, parallel pandemic caused by COVID-19: a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression, sleep disturbances, eating disorders and substance abuse, particularly among younger populations. The pandemic’s impact on mental health will almost certainly outlive the virus, and these effects are layered upon already growing rates of mental health issues stemming from social media usage for example. The second crisis of physical inactivity is very much intertwined with the first. In October 2018, the World Health Organisation published the first study estimating global physical activity trends over time in the medical journal the Lancet, with alarming results and a call to action to prioritise and urgently scale up policies that increase populations’ levels of physical activity. The medical community is also concerned that the pandemic’s effects on physical activity and sedentary behaviour have not been given their required attention.

Prior to the pandemic, evidence supporting the health benefits of cycling was already widespread in the medical community, and as we keep the momentum of cycling going, these benefits must be communicated effectively. The World Health Organisation’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030 strongly recommends policies that facilitate walking and cycling for transportation and recreation.

In the Netherlands, where about a third of all trips are by bicycle, the effects that such policies have are clearly visible. Indeed, cycling prevents 6500 Dutch deaths each year, and extends the population’s life expectancy by half a year. In economic terms, these health benefits correspond to more than 3% of the Dutch gross domestic product. The national government’s 2018 “Cycling Facts” reports that two-thirds of Dutch residents aged 18 and over associate cycling with joy, and that “people who walk or cycle to work tend to be more satisfied, less stressed, more relaxed, and experience greater freedom compared to people who drive their car to work.” Cycling enables children in the Netherlands to move independently from a young age, and UNICEF’s annual reports consistently rank them as the happiest in the world. In its latest assessment of factors contributing to adolescent mental wellbeing, it places cycling second only to “regularly eating breakfast”, and above “getting enough sleep”.

If governments recognise the important health benefits that cycling can confer to their populations, and commit to prioritising active mobility for all, we can begin to collectively heal as societies open up and people get moving again. For this edition of Perspectives, we spoke with members of the medical community, researchers, activists and planners that are each advancing cycling for health around the world.

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