Promoting cycling in cities can tackle obesity

Promoting cycling in cities can tackle obesity
Credit: Lenscap Photography/Shutterstock

Daily travel by bike leads to the lowest BMI, according to a study of seven European cities, suggesting cities should promote active commutes.

More bike-friendly cities would also help reduce and tackle air pollution, say the study's authors.

The analysis of data from seven European cities – part of the European Commission funded Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches (PASTA) project – suggests that daily cyclists weigh less than their non-active counterparts. The research was led by Hasselt University and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research, and included Imperial College London researchers.

The study, published in the journal Environment International, also finds that riding an electric bike (e-bike) is associated with a higher BMI as compared to regular cyclists. In ascending order, cyclists have the lowest BMI, then walkers, public transport users, motorcyclists, users of an electric bike, and finally car drivers, who have the highest BMI.

By following over 2000 urban dwellers over time, the team found that men who switch from car driving to cycling for their daily travel lose on average 0.75 kg of weight, with an average decrease in BMI of 0.24. For women, this was a little bit less.

Promoting active travel in cities may therefore provide an opportunity to fight the obesity epidemic, as well as tackle air pollution. As part of the PASTA project, researchers have listed a number of good practices for cities to promote active mobility.

Tackling air pollution and obesity

Co-author Dr. Audrey de Nazelle, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial, said: "Travel by car contributes to obesity and also . In contrast, bikes burn fat and don't release pollution.

"As well as promoting better health, cities that encourage cycling are giving themselves a better chance of meeting air quality objectives."

The team also found that people who cycle at least occasionally to go to work or to run errands maintained their weight. First author of the study Dr. Evi Dons from Hasselt University said: "In this way, cycling prevents overweight people from gaining additional weight and it prevents those who are of normal weight from becoming overweight or obese."

Sustained changes

The new study followed people over time, providing a more concrete link between cycling and BMI than studies that just survey people at one point in time. It also meant the results were not skewed by only taking into account people who were already cyclists, as someone of a lower weight is more likely to cycle in the first place.

By going back to the same people as they took up cycling, the researchers could gauge the true effect on the people's health and BMI.

The study focused on travelling for daily tasks such as commuting to work, running errands, or picking up children. This means that observed weight differences were independent of possible changes due to recreational , walking or jogging, sports, or being physically active at work.

Explore further

Car drivers are four kilograms heavier than cyclists, new study reveals

More information: Evi Dons et al. Transport mode choice and body mass index: Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from a European-wide study, Environment International (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.06.023
Journal information: Environment International

Citation: Promoting cycling in cities can tackle obesity (2018, July 6) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
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User comments

Jul 07, 2018
Just yesterday I came back from a conference in Amsterdam - which is an extremely bike friendly city. And I noticed that - apart from the tourists - there are remarkably few fat (and almost no obese) people.

The percentage of eBikes was extremely low (some rent-a-bikes for the tourists, but that's all).

The thing is, though, if you want a bicycle-friendly city you have to incorporate this into your road structure early on. Separate bike lanes (and I mean physically separate from cars) as they have in Amsterdam can't just be added 'in post'.
Along with all the extra turning lanes and traffic lights specifically for cyclists they've done a remarkable job of keeping everything to a level where cars, bikes and pedestrians don't endanger each other (much).

Jul 08, 2018
I live in Fort Collins, CO which is a very bike friendly city. There are very few overweight people here which is a nice change from WI where I grew up. I bike everywhere except to work, which is unfortunately about 35mi away.

Jul 09, 2018
Mixing bikers with cars may not be a very good idea for many reasons. One of them is that bikers end up breathing exhaust gas; if they breathe at a higher rate than other people that may affect them in the long run.

Jul 09, 2018
All the more reason to go electric for cars - which was another thing I noticed in Amsterdam. There were the occasional roadside charging points and a fair bit of electric cars on the road. I think they're going the right way.

As for exhaust gas. Pedestrians (and other automobilists, and resideents) breathe it too. Bikers aren't the only ones breathing on or near the roads.

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