Why does cycling work?

One of the things I enjoy about my job is the opportunity to make connections between the public health issues we research in DECIPHer, and my own everyday life.  For instance, as a parent I have gained some useful insights from my research on parenting and family relationships.  But I have also found that it is not always easy to put into practice what you know.  At least that is how I rationalise the mismatch between what I know about healthy diet and exercise, and what I actually do.  I suppose I exemplify the fact – now well known to the public health research community – that simply giving information to individuals about the need to be more active or eat healthily is unlikely to change behaviour.  The work we do in DECIPHer addresses the multiple influences on individual behaviour, and develops theories about how they can be modified to improve health.

Earlier this year – and before the start of the Cardiff monsoon season – my partner suggested we think about buying a bike (one each, you understand).  The idea appealed, and by the beginning of September I was mobile on two wheels.  It took a bit of getting used to, physically and psychologically, but I soon began to feel that this was something that would work for me.  Slowly but surely I have been able to ride further without collapsing at the side of road, and can now comfortably do the six mile return journey from north Cardiff to work. I certainly feel better for doing some regular physical exercise, and through a routine that has been easier to stick to that my attempts to visit the gym.  So, I thought to myself, why has the bike succeeded where my attempts to use the gym or go running failed?

One way to get around Cardiff.

Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy using the bike, to the extent that I’m motivated to take it out of the bike shed even when it’s wet and miserable. There is a certain feeling of wellbeing and achievement at the end of a ride, and it’s a good way to unwind at the end of the day, though I must remember to concentrate on the road ahead, not how I am going to structure academic papers.  There is something quite liberating about being on a bike – the wind in what is left of my hair, the freedom to decide when I leave work without needing to consult a timetable or sit in traffic, and the ability to take the bike through cycle lanes, gaps in traffic, parks and short cuts, where cars cannot go.

I think one of the main reasons I have managed, on the whole, to stick with the bike, is because using it is practicable and achievable, and something I was able to integrate into my daily routine without too much hassle.  Cycling to or from work is almost as fast for me as travelling by public transport, so I have a form of physical activity which doesn’t demand much extra time.

Photo of bike at night, tied to lamppost.

Knowing where it’s safe and legal to cycle can be difficult.

Since the last time I had a bike, over 10 years ago, quite a lot seems to have changed in terms of how cyclists are provided for  – in large cities, at least.  There are far more cycle lanes (though sometimes shared with buses and taxis), advanced stop zones at traffic junctions, and dedicated cycle paths in some places.  As a newcomer to cycling in Cardiff my impression is that a lot of thought has gone in to creating a network of cycle routes – a glance of the council’s cycling map certainly suggests so.  Saying that, I do sometimes find the existing provision for cyclists confusing and variable. Cycle lanes often seem to appear and then disappear without warning.  Some sections of cycle lane are unusable because they are obscured by lines of parked cars.  It also takes time to figure out where cyclists are permitted to use the pavement, and where (by default) this is banned.

Recently I’ve been reading work by Bisset et al. (2009) on cooking intervention in schools.  It argues that if health-based interventions integrate the goals of local ‘actors’ within their operation, it is more likely that changes promoted by interventions will be sustained and integrated within local contexts such as schools.  And these ‘local’ interests may not be about health per se – they might have more to do with schools’ educational mission, or the interpersonal connections between pupils and parents. I can empathise with this. The health benefits of cycling are important for me.  But perhaps they weren’t enough to get me back on my bike, and to make a change in my lifestyle.  There needed to be something that had personal meaning and interest too. For me, this was the opportunity to explore the city in which I live, the freedom the bike has given me, and the sense of achievement I’ve gained.

About the author: Dr. Jeremy Segrott is a Research Fellow in Public Health at DECIPHer, based at Cardiff University. He tweets at @DrJeremySegrott.

Image sources:

Banner image – Abulic Monkey, via Flickr.

Circus bike – hbp_pix, via Flickr.

Photo of bike at night: Jeremy Segrott.


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