UPDATED UPDATE: And Chris Boardman in the UK has also named cycling as a great way to combat obesity.

UPDATE: I thought this post deserved a bump when I saw this article by obesity.org which states that:

New research ties bike-friendly infrastructure changes in United States cities to increases in “active commuting” by bike-riding residents, which can improve and sustain weight and reduce cardiac risk.

Transport choice in an obese country
Transport choice in an obese country

The NZ Herald has run yet another scary article on the growing obesity epidemic in New Zealand. According to the article, we are now the fourth most obese country in the world.

As much as I agree with the emphasis on the culture of unhealthy food, there is of course the other side to the equation – a lack of exercise. This is where cycling really comes into its own. You only have to look at the 2014 OECD report on obesity referred to in the article to appreciate the differences.

This shows that cycle friendly countries like the Netherlands and Denmark not only have road traffic deaths at half NZ’s rate but also their obesity rate is just over a third of NZ’s.

Now it is difficult to draw the conclusion that cycling is the panacea to all our obesity woes. Portugal  and Italy have very low cycling rates and have low obesity rates while Hungary is one of the stars of modern cycling, but comes in ahead of New Zealand as third most obese. Having lived in that part of the world, I must say I was surprised by that result for Hungary. Hungarians never seemed like very large people to me.

Transport choice in a non-obese country
Transport choice in a non-obese country

Parallel cultural factors will always play a role but it is true that English speaking countries have a dismal record of obesity (6 of the top 10 obese countries are English speaking) and also corresponding average cycling rates of 1-2%. Most of the countries with low obesity rates have an above average (Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany) to excellent (Japan, China, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden) cycling culture.

Weight gain is a simple formula of energy in, energy out. A good cycling culture, one that recognises cycling as an everyday activity, is certainly one way to bring some energy balance back to our lives – especially when we are busy and it is hard to find time to get to the gym or for a run. This has recently been acknowledged in the UK.

Cycling as a means of transport is a great way to incorporate exercise into our working day. But first we need to make it feel safe and create the 8-80 culture that makes it work. For that we need separated cycle infrastructure on arterials, direct routes for cyclists over cars and slow speeds on non-arterials. The obesity epidemic and our high traffic death rates are increasingly making this a matter of life or death for many NZers.

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21 responses to “UPDATED – Obesity and cycling: The NZ disconnect

  1. Nicely put, it’s just so obivous really – cycling is good (and fun) for everyone, all the time. City, suburb, young, old. Build the (cycling) network of our future now.

  2. Dr Lawrence Frank spoke about this at Velo-city (New research on the health impacts of land use and transportation investment decisions: new tools to support evidence based decision making)

    He noted the huge health benefit savings of moving from a car-dependent culture to a community that integrates active modes of transport. The quickest thing we can do he says to meet the challenges of our time (global warming, obesity crisis) is reappropriate road space.

    His research showed that whether we will change our behaviour and our travel choices are influenced by where we live and what form of travel is intuitive. His research showed:

    – 3.43 times more likely to meet physical activity targets if take public transport
    – Every extra hour in a car translates into 6% increase in obesity

    Dr Frank’s presentation highlighted the importance of including the health benefits of walking and cycling improvements in any cost benefit analysis. He said we need to enable people to inhibit health promoting behaviours they want. (from my conference notes)

    Clearly one of the most effective things we can do in NZ to tackle obesity is to make it intuitive to jump on a bike, especially for short trips and to PT, rather than get in the car.

  3. Ever tried cycling in auckland as fat person? I’m 140 KG, and I cycle, run, and go to the gym. There is almost nowhere I can cycle in Auckland that doesnt involve hills, and they hurt. Hurt like hell. If I was just starting out, I wouldnt even bother, its just too hard. It’s all right for people without a weight problem, but trust me, its harder than hard.
    Also, the formula energy in, energy out is too simplistic. I was cycling 30km 2x a day, 3x a week. And I had weight loss surgery so I could/can eat very little, and STILL the weight did not drop. I was expending something like 2000 calories each way (and, I am not out for a “cruise” I am extremely competitive – my best speed avg for the 55km airport loop is 32.7 kmh ).

    I find things like this ridiculous, and insulting for fat people. I know how hard it is. I went to the gym and got a fitness assessment. The instructor kept making it too easy because he assumed that because I was overweight I was unfit. Turns out, that on their scale, I am off the top (fitter than the muscle bound instructor). You cant tell me that cycling for a few mins once or twice a week is going to do anything for anyone’s fitness, let alone their health.

    Short trips on a bike arent going to help anyone. 45 minute trips on a bike every day, plus a calorie controlled food intake, a dietitian and psychologist will help.
    You cant make people have healthy lifestyles, people have to want to choose to do it. And even that is not going to work for everyone, even after drastic measures (case in point, me).

    Cycling is good once you have lost weight. And for the rare person who can bear to put their obese body on a tiny bicycle seat and cycle until it kills them, despite the sores and welts and bruises they cant fix, it works.

    Exercise is great, but ultimately the most efficient way to lose weight is to control your calorie input. I had gastric sleeve surgery, and went from 210KG to where I am now. I am uniquely qualified to know what does and does not work.

    1. Fantastic to hear of the success you have had in losing weight. Good on you for working so hard.

      I agree that the post is simplistic and I did acknowledge a number of times that there is a hell of a lot more than just cycling involved. However, there is no doubt that as a society (rather than just talking about individuals) we would be healthier if more people cycled more often.

      I suggest that your situation is an outlier on the average and that there are a lot of people struggling with their weight who would benefit enormously from cycling more regularly. Anecdotal evidence doesnt prove much – for example, here is a contrary story to yours (http://www.bikeradar.com/blog/article/i-was-morbidly-obese-then-i-rediscovered-cycling-24462/) but that doesnt detract from or reduce the validity of your experience.

      There is also this medical report that basically repeats the tone of my post: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19164816

      It says: “Although the results do not prove causality, they suggest that active transportation could be one of the factors that explain international differences in obesity rates.”

      That is about as far as I would go as well.

      I agree that “cycling for a few mins once or twice a week” is unlikely to have any effect but I think we are talking more about 30 mins per day of cycling. That could be to the train/busway/ferry station and back or maybe to the office or the shops.

      I am sorry if the post offended you but I still stand by the overall message – cycling is one of the factors that would help many people in NZ deal with their weight issues. I think ebikes would be a great way for many larger people to ease into cycling as they allow a range of assist levels.

    2. Geoff, thanks very much for sharing this. I have a couple of overweight friends who cycle. They struggle to lose weight, especially off their ‘middles’.

      1. Hi Matt, yep, sure aint easy. I am going to the gym 4 days a week and going for a ride on the weekend if I can.. and the weight is slowly moving.

  4. You write:
    “Weight gain is a simple formula of energy in, energy out.”
    Can you prove this.
    There is certainly an association between those 2 variables, yet this is not a casual relations.
    As you note, the are so many “paradoxes”, like the Hungarians, like the hardest working people are the most obese (the poor that work physically). Like the “dual burden” (google it) the phenomenon where under-nutrition (lack of calories) coexists in the same populations, and even the same families.
    In short, “calories in vs. out” is almost certainly not the cause of obesity.
    I suggest to all to read “Why We Get fat” by Gary Taubes.
    Even if you will not agree, you’ll enjoy it.

    1. An interesting UK blog on that subject, referring to new data on UK food consumption:

      “…Obesity prevalence is clearly much higher today than it was in 1948 and it seems clear to me—and should be clear to anybody who has the slightest understanding of the difference in the typical lifestyle of 1948 compared with today—that the primary reason for this is a big decline in physical activity, whether it be in the workplace, in the home or in personal transportation. ‘Energy in’ has gone down, but ‘energy out’ has gone down even more….”

  5. Surely there can be little doubt that a short ride (or walk) is a health improvement on a very short drive?

    Add to the individual benefits the community benefit of improved interaction, reduced traffic risk and emissions, short trips are what bikes and feet are best at!

    Regarding saddle comfort, new riders might pick a bike with a more upright posture and a broader saddle, like a dutch bike.

    The saddle can then take the rider’s weight and reduce the effort needed to get around. If you’re going slow, you’re not going to be affected much by the air resistance from being more ‘seated’ than ‘perched’.

    Sports riders like Geoff put less of their weight on the saddle anyway, but for heavier riders a narrow saddle will result in more pressure on the backside than for a lighter rider, hence sore bits. I found a suspension saddle post helped to take the bumps out of the ride.

    1. I have both an upright bike and a sports bike..

      The issue is the stomach pressing down heavily, its worse on a sports bike, but its pretty bad on an upright bike too.

      BenL: What we need is a program where by employers, for example, sponsor their employees (maybe by allowing them to work 30mins less on days they cycle or something). We need manufacturers of bikes to make bikes for obese people and not charge thousands. We need people who make cycling apparel to make something bigger than 2XL italian, so that obese people can ride comfortably without looking like an oversize lycra clad blimp, or an idiot who forgot not to wear their work clothes while sweating like a pig.
      We need cycle expressways that are safe, and as flat as possible (impossible in auckland).
      Actually, that’s just the start of a list.
      I reckon the best one might be if you save people money (ie, pay them) to cycle, more people will do it. You register for a “cyclist License” and there are “toll booths” on the regular commuting routes (north/south/east/west to start). Every time you swipe your card you get a rebate on your Car rego. Lets say, if you cycled 200 times (maybe there is a swipe at each end) you get $150 off your rego..

      1. I definitely agree Geoff that there needs to be more incentive financially to cycle.

        Do you know about this scheme in the UK?

        As I have said before in posts (http://bikeauckland.org.nz/government/auckland-council/transit-and-cycling-transport-bffs/), I am sure the real growth in cycling will be from people cycling up to 3kms to the nearest train, busway or ferry station. Most Aucklanders live within 3kms of a station and wont want to bike 5+kms every day to work.

        To do that we need to encourage PT use and I think for a start there should be no FBT if an employer buys a monthly (or annual if available) travel pass for an employee as pasrt of their remuneration. That is what happens in most of Europe. There is currently no FBT on non-allocated parking for employees, so this to me seems the same.

        From a health perspective, see this in Boston:

        Again, good on you for all you have done and continue to do for your weight issues. You have shown real courage.

        1. I’ve seen a bit of a discussion on the english cycle scheme. There is an English show called “The Cycle Show” where they talk about it (http://www.cycleshow.co.uk/)
          Its a good start, but really, its just a sponsored bike, and you still have to pay for it. It gets a few more bums on bikes, but what I’m thinking of is a scheme that makes a positive monetary gain for riding. After all.. you double the number of people on bikes coming into the CBD, and think of the relief to congestion, parking, etc.
          I also do not think many kiwis actually “like” PT. We like to be in control of our destiny, not stuck to someone elses timetable.
          Perhaps, cycling to a train, and being able to load a bike into a special carriage.. but then most people wont want to let their bikes out of their sight.

          Interesting article about boston, I did note this though, that the scheme is a way of getting low income people transport. The medical check is merely to make sure the political entity responsible isnt going to get sued for giving a bike to a person with a medical disorder that gets them killed.
          “”It’s really a point of convenience, and we hope that coming from a physician it may give people more of a stimulus to actually buy it,” Meyers says.

          If you can bore people into donating an organ, maybe you can bore them into hopping on a bike, too.”


          I dont think you will easily convince people that riding is worthwhile. The perceived downsides (whilst not necessarily true) out weigh the upsides. Make it monetarily beneficial, even if it is only a rebate on car registration or rates or something, and you’ll have a huge take up. A lot of us are struggling for money, and would do anything to save that extra few $$. The fitness and health benefits then become a rationalisation.

          1. Well I have to really disagree with you about NZers and public transport – that is more just a matter of the form of city we have created. Auckland is one of the most autodependent large cities in the world, even by Australasian standards.

            The huge growth on the trains and the Northern Busway seem to indicate that actually it is just that NZers (like everyone else in the world) wont use slow, infrequent, unreliable PT. Here and overseas, NZers are more than happy to use fast, frequent and convenient PT. I certainly did everywhere I lived overseas.

            “Make it monetarily beneficial” – Yes that is one approach, except is already monetarily beneficial, its free! You can also do what the Dutch have done and make it easier and more convenient to use a bicycle than a car. After all, it wasnt that long ago relatively that Chch was the 2nd best cycle city in the world.

          2. Christchurch isnt built on 7 volcanos.

            I live in a flat part of auckland, and yet within 3 km of my house are 2 reasonably annoying hills to climb. And you have to go up either on the way out, or the way back, and there is no choice.
            Therein lies the problem.
            To get from penrose to newmarket is a 7km hill climb. Good fun coming home.. but going in… sheesh.

  6. For cash incentive, I’m saving $65 weekly in parking (or about $3000pa if I got a contract). Fuel saving is about $10 weekly and I don’t need a second car for the family, so call that another $1000pa in depreciation, repairs, servicing, consumables and what not. I don’t know what a spin class costs, but I don’t need one of those either! Conservative estimate is that I gave myself a $5000pa payrise by getting on my bike.

    I get what Geoff is saying about gut ergonomics, its why I haven’t ridden in drops for a decade. To free up your diaphragm for breathing and reduce pressure on back, crack & sack, I wonder if a recumbent might be a better, if pricey solution.

    1. I think that is massively conservative Jake. $10 on petrol? So that is maybe 10kms of travel if you have a fuel efficient car.

      Saving from no second car? I think the saving is more like $5,000 a year just for that. You aren’t taking into account a huge number of costs. That is about what the AA says a car costs a year at the lower end.

      I reckon your savings are more like $10,000 per annum, and that may be conservative.

      1. Ben you’re right, we ditched the second car in 2004 when our first boy was born, and never looked back. The key to making this work in Auckland for families is being close to your schools and/or having one parent working school hours. If my wife worked full time their would be huge pressure on me helping with school drop-off/collection so I’d be back in a car. Sorry, this is really off topic!

  7. I’m a fairly recent convert. I started cycling to work exactly 1 year ago. I’ve clocked up 5200 km commuting and cycling for exercise. I very quickly lost 10kg but haven’t lost any more since then. I’m 81kg now. The health benefits are definitely there but I think more than that I started to actually appreciate how useless we become without regular exercise, particularly the cardio.

    If the hills are a bother I see a few people on electric bikes which flattens everything out. If there health benefits for the netherlands then it will be the same here with e-bikes.

    Credit to my company, the building has a secure bike park with a shower room. That helps a lot.

  8. The health benefits are not just weight loss. The cardio is great. I can partake in strenuous activity and not get bushed. I find the benefits to my mental health to be just as great. At the end of a stressful day I get on my bike ride home, get there relaxed and ready to enjoy family life.

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