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Study: Biking, like brisk walking, helps women avoid middle-age spread

This spring, I finally had my bike outfitted with a rack and panniers so I could use it more for running errands — particularly for biking downtown to the Mill City Farmers Market each Saturday.

Of course, I have a host of excuses (weather, time constraints, pure laziness) for why I haven’t yet used my bike for my weekly trips to the market. But now I may have a new incentive for making that trip — and others — by bike: A study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that biking, like brisk walking (3+ miles per hour), is associated with less weight gain in women as they approach and enter middle age. And the effects were strongest for women who started out overweight or obese.

The observational study, which followed 18,414 premenopausal participants in the ongoing and all-female Nurses’ Health Study II for 16 years, also found that we women need to pick up our walking pace. Slow walking (less than 3 miles per hour) apparently had no effect on preventing weight gain.

OK. Those may not seem like earth-shattering conclusions. But, as research fellow Anne Lusk and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health point out in their study, this seems to be the first research to compare bicycle riding with walking for its effects on weight control. And that is surprising.

According to background information in the study, previous research on bicycling has either involved only men, or looked at a combo bicycling-walking exercise program, or been conducted in countries where the infrastructure is much more bike-friendly — like the Netherlands. Some 27 percent of Dutch adults get to and fro their daily activities on bike, and 55 percent of them are women. Compare that to the United States, where only 0.5 percent of adults commute by bike to work. Of those, only 23 percent are women. (Those differing bicycling rates may partly explain why 23.9 percent of Americans are obese compared with 8.1 percent of the Dutch.)

Why is bicycling given such short shrift as an exercise option here in the U.S., even to the point of not being researched much?

“Compared with bicycling, multiple studies have been conducted on walking, described as the ‘near perfect form of exercise,’ ” write Lusk and her colleagues. “Perhaps walking has been identified as beneficial because it has been compared, in the US car-centric nation, with not walking.”

Women in particular tend not to consider biking a viable exercise option because our car-centricity has caused us to create bicycle environments that favor on-road bike lanes — exactly the kind of bicycling environments that women do not prefer. Researchers, including those here in Minnesota, have found that women want to be as far away as possible from cars when on their bikes. They want dedicated bike paths.

In the Netherlands, bicycle paths are designed based on the preferences of 50- to 60-year-old male and female bicyclists — preferences that lean toward bicycle-exclusive paths.

With our Nice Ride Minnesota and Community Partners Bike Library programs and miles of bicycling paths, we’re more bike-friendly here in the Twin Cities than in many other large urban areas. In fact, just last month, Bicycling magazine ranked the Twin Cities as the most bike-friendly city among those with a population of 100,000-plus. And the League of American Bicyclists has named Minnesota the fourth most bicycle-friendly state in the country.

But even here, if we want to get more people — especially women — on bicycles, we need to do more research into the kinds of environments that are truly bike-friendly for all. “If facilities were designed based on women’s requests, the outcome might lead to bicycle facilities in the United States that are comfortable to more people and facilitate greater weight control,” concluded Lusk and her colleagues.

FYI: The summer issue of Edible Twin Cities has an informative article on grocery shopping by bike that includes many helpful tips — such as carrying your egg carton not in a pannier or trailer, but in a backpack, where it is less vulnerable to the shell-cracking jostles of the road. Unfortunately, the article isn't available on line, but you can pick up a copy for free at your local food co-op or other places around town.

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Comments (2)

The reason we favor on-street bike lanes is that they don't cost much. You just send a crew out with white spray paint, and bingo, you're "bike friendly". These bike lanes consist of the 3 feet between parked cars and fast moving traffic - what cyclists call the "door zone".

Someday U.S. cities will get serious about cycling as transportation. Until then we can have our fun little competition with Portland for a meaningless title.

The study's results shouldn't come as much of a surprise - using your body helps control weight. What I learned this year is that swimming has been far more effective than recreational cycling to control weight. While recreational cycling had effectively stopped midsection growth, the swimming program reversed the trend, putting me back into a waist size I haven't seen in decades (this for a 40 yr old male).