Bike Michiana

resources, news, observations and ideas about bicycling in the Michiana area

Cycling and Health

Posted by Adam Bee on December 16, 2008

Is cycling good for you or bad for you?

Sure, cycling is almost certainly good for the environment, for our neighborhoods and city, and for adding life to your life (although there are some who might disagree with each of those statements).

At first it might appear obvious to most cyclists that of course cycling is healthy.  The problem is that most non-cyclists don’t believe that to be true, and in qualitative interviews many cite the dangers of cycling as a major barrier to participation.

So which is true?  Cycling almost certainly decreases the incidence of death or morbidity by all causes other than crashes.  The question is whether:

1.  Cycling substitutes for other, less healthy activities (e.g. does cycling reduce the miles driven by car, and if so are there fewer, less injurious crashes per mile?; and

2.  If not, do the health benefits of cycling make up for the increased risks of cycling?

There are many difficulties in satisfactorily designing a research program which satisfactorily answers this question.  The biggest problem is that the type of person who chooses to ride bikes also is likely to care about their health in many other facets of their lives.  It’s the same reason why regular flossing appears to dramatically lengthen lifespans–flossing is a sign that one values health.  Given this “selection” issue, it’s hard to think of what the appropriate framing of the question is for practical purposes.

Another problem is dealing with the effects of increased riders on the safety of all the other riders on the road–if nearly everyone rode bikes, the safety of cycling would dramatically increase.

Here are some links that seem to address the question, at least superficially:

http://www.veryfunnyads.com/index.html?id=25535

http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=British+Medical+Association,+Cycling+towards+Health+%26+Safety,+1992&hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&hs=hvl&pwst=1&um=1&ie=UTF-8&oi=scholart

http://www.amazon.com/Cycling-Towards-British-Medical-Association/dp/0192861514

http://www.magma.ca/~ocbc/demarco.html

http://davesbikeblog.blogspot.com/2008/04/cyclists-live-longer.html

I personally don’t have a ton of time to do serious work on this question right now, but I’ll keep thinking about it.  What do you think?  Is it impossible to ever know for sure?  Can we still be justified in trying to get our friends and coworkers onto bikes without being sure that it’s good for their health?  Is this even an important question?  What other ways are there of looking at this?

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