Reviving the bicycle for health

The humble bicycle could be a key to our long-term survival — in terms of health, environment and economics. CAP’s research shows that reviving bicycle use here would benefit both the nation and the people. Here’s the evidence for health.

A recent Malaysian Shape of the Nation survey showed that Malaysia has the most number of fat people in the Asean region. In fact, the number of fat people here exceeds that in many developed countries, including Germany and France (NST, 29 September 2006).

In the last 10 years, the number of fat people has more than doubled, resulting in more Malaysians falling ill and diseases such as hypertension and diabetes shooting up. Today 54% of the adult population is either obese or overweight compared to only 24.1% 10 years ago.

The latest survey showed that 48% of Malaysian men and 62% of Malaysian women are fat. By contrast, in Singapore, about 24% of men and 48% of women are fat.

Many Malaysians are thus at risk of getting cardiovascular disease, hypertension, lipid disorder and diabetes mellitus. The same study found that 13.5% of the adult population here is diabetic, compared with only 8.3% in 1996.

Last year’s figures showed that more than 10,000 people in Malaysia died each year from diseases linked to hypertension like stroke, heart attack and renal failure, including about 6,000 deaths due to coronary heart disease (NST, 7 April 2006).

3 million suffer from high cholesterol while another 2.1 million have diabetes.

Every day, about 110 Malaysians suffer a stroke, the country’s third killer after cancer and heart attack. More than 40,000 new cancer cases are reported annually.

1 in 3 Malaysians aged 30 and above suffers from hypertension while only 6 out of every 100 have their blood pressure under control.

Malaysian Children Growing Fatter & Sicker

Malaysian children are also growing fatter. A recent study of 11,264 schoolchildren between the ages of 6 and 12 in Peninsular Malaysia in 2002, found that 1 out of every 6 pupils in the country is fat. Malaysian children are thus worse off than children in other Asian countries, such as the Philippines where 1 out of every 20 pupils is overweight.

Overweight children face similar health risks as adults. And the current scenario is not promising.

According to Universiti Malaya Medical Centre’s cardiology division head Prof Dr Wan Azman Wan Ahmad, more young people were getting heart disease compared to 30 years ago.   One-third of heart patients in the country are under 45 years old  (Star, 30 July 2006).

“30 years ago, heart patients were aged between 50 and 55 for males and 60 and 65 for females. But today, we get patients as young as 15.”

Encourage Children to Cycle

Many youngsters today lead a sedentary life and spend increasing amounts of their leisure time watching TV or playing on the computer. Unlike children of generations ago, modern Malaysian children are also restricted from exploring their surroundings on foot or by bicycle due to safety reasons, including road safety. Young people’s mobility today is also becoming more car-based, with fewer cycling and walking, especially to school.

As children are increasingly transported by car, traffic danger increases, conditions for cycling or walking (eg: to school) are made increasingly unpleasant and fewer children walk or cycle to school. This serves again to discourage cycling and leads to greater car use, which provokes parents into further thinking that roads are too dangerous, hence a vicious circle is created.

Research has shown that independent mobility helps make children more active and self-confident, and helps them learn vital road sense. Research has also shown that independent mobility and being able to be outdoors without supervision is essential for children’s personal and social development.

The Government should waste no time in making our roads more bicycle-friendly and encouraging children to cycle where distances between homes and schools are short, eg: less than 3 km.

There are many benefits from this move, among them:

— Cycling is a good way to encourage children to do regular exercise. Regular cycling increases activity levels of children. The World Health Organisation recommends that young people should aim to be active for over 1 hour per day. Children who do not exercise regularly risk becoming overweight or even obese, with all its attending health risks.

— Encouraging cycling in youngsters provides opportunity to modify travel behaviour and alter the travel habits of the next generation. Patterns and habits of adult life are formed during childhood. Research suggests that when children are encouraged to cycle from a young age, they often continue to cycle as adults.

— Promoting cycling to school can reduce traffic on the roads and helps improve our children’s quality of life.

Many developed countries today have adopted successful cycle-to-school schemes that benefit their young and their countries. In Odense, Denmark, numerous changes were made to the traffic environment so as to improve it for children in the “Safe Routes to School” project.

The project was one of several features, which within 20 years, changed Denmark’s child casualty rate from the worst to among the best in western Europe. Measures included slow-speed areas, road narrowings, traffic islands and combined foot and cycle paths. This resulted in an 82% reduction in accidents.

In Flanders, Belgium, bicycle pooling, in which children cycle to school in small groups under adult guidance, has been introduced.

In Munich, Germany the “Sustainable Mobility for Kids” (MOBIKIDS) project, introduced measures such as drop-off areas for children in dedicated zones, “walking buses” and “cycle trains” (adult-guided time-table travel to school).

Similar measures can be adopted here before cycling is officially promoted to children.

Cycling Improves Health

By cycling, Malaysians — both children and adults — will be incorporating exercise into their daily life, and in the process, improve their health.

The following extract from the book, Redesigning Urban Transport by the Earth Policy Institute, puts it well: “The bicycle is not only a flexible means of transportation, it is an ideal way of restoring a balance between caloric intake and expenditure … Regular exercise of the sort provided by cycling to work reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis and strengthens the immune system.

“Millions of people pay a monthly fee to use a fitness centre, which they often drive to, where they ride stationary bikes, trying to achieve the same benefits.”

Health experts say that to stay healthy, we need at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. This will help cut one’s risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure and other illnesses. Cycling, which can burn up to 700 calories in an hour, is a good way to stay healthy.

Cycling is also the perfect prescription for losing weight and getting fit — and thus prevent obesity, which is on the rise in Malaysia.

And because a cyclist breathes fewer fumes than those in cars or buses, they are less likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses. Research shows that people who cycle are actually better off in pollution terms than people in cars, taxis and buses. (People in cars are exposed to 3-4 times more air pollution than pedestrians or cyclists!)