Earth, wind and biking

Are we killing ourselves with car reliance and taking the planet down with us? And could it be that a Nineteenth Century, two-wheeled invention is part of the answer?

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Press Release: Bike Wise Week February 28, 2007

New Zealand — Climate change, pollution, obesity, heart disease and stress. We receive daily warnings that we need to cut down on them all. Are we killing ourselves with car reliance and taking the planet down with us? And could it be that a Nineteenth Century, two-wheeled invention is part of the answer?

There’s no doubting that cycling is having a renaissance. No longer the exclusive domain of the shiny-lycra-brigade, bikes are being embraced by Kiwis of all shapes and sizes, many of whom would in no way consider themselves ‘greenies’ or fitness fanatics.

Tony Smith, National Sales Manager for Avanti Cycles estimates that demand for its bikes and accessories has increased by around 20 percent this year alone, and growth has been largely in the commuter market.

“Cycling is becoming like the new golf,” he says. “If people aren’t riding to and from work, then they’re out in groups riding together for exercise before work. It’s quite a relaxing, social activity for many.”

He says demand has been increased by the number of cycling activities organised all around the country by local and regional sporting bodies aimed at getting people to exchange the gas pedal for the bike pedal.

Bike Wise Programme Director Brent Skinnon says the growing popularity of cycling makes a lot of sense. “It’s hard to find an activity that ticks as many boxes as cycling does. It’s good for the environment as well as for fitness, weight-loss and reducing stress. It’s not overly expensive and anyone can do it.”

Dieticians and weight-loss experts have long emphasised that diet alone is not as effective for maintaining healthy weight as diet combined with exercise. Riding a bike is an effective way of burning calories. Cycling at a low impact 20 kph on a flat road uses 450 kcal per hour. It also raises the metabolism, so the body continues to burn calories at a faster rate even after riding.

Just cycling a few kilometres per day will make muscles in the calves, upper thighs, and backside trimmer and more toned, something many will consider good news indeed.

Because it is mainly an aerobic activity, cycling benefits the lungs which expand to increase oxygen intake, and the heart which beats faster to transport this oxygen around the body. A strong heart and powerful lungs form the basis of general fitness. Some estimates say cycling for around 35 kms per week reduces the risk of heart disease to less than half that for non-cyclists.

Steve Duder, Marketing Manager for Wellington ISP Actrix, says that getting back into cycling in his mid forties has probably saved him from an early grave.

“Years of work stress and not eating right caused me to gain a lot of weight, but I just couldn’t seem to find the time to incorporate exercise into my day. Using a bike for trips across town instead of my car was the answer, and it takes the same amount of time.

“Now I’ve gained back a little fitness, I’ve started riding to relax during the little spare time I have. I find I’m a calmer and nicer person when I get off my bike than I was when I got on.”

And there are mental benefits to cycling. Exercising releases endorphins into the blood creating a feeling of contentment and happiness which helps to reduce stress. Also, cycling is generally performed in conditions of exposure to natural light and fresh air, each of which seems to have a measurably positive effect upon mood.

In fact the psychological benefits derived may be better than those from many other forms of exercise because cycling also incorporates significant anaerobic (resistance) activity. Anaerobic exercise in particular has been found to have antidepressant effects.

Cycling makes the planet breathe easier too. With 3.2 million cars for our 4.1 million people, New Zealand has become the most car-dependent nation on earth. The resulting exhaust emissions are a major source of pollutants and account for 44 percent of New Zealand’s carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

A recent study estimated that around 400 people die prematurely in New Zealand each year because of vehicle air pollution. That’s 17 more than died from vehicle smashes in 2006.

Author Iris Murdoch wrote that while “other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish, only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” It seems Mother Earth, and thousands of New Zealanders would now agree.