Is it safe? Part 2 or Why riding your bike is safer than sitting on your couch

credit: unknown internet world
Today was one of those days in the windy Midwest when I actually felt a gust move my bike to the side by a good measure and at a stop light I had to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground to keep from being knocked down. That meant that my normal nemesis the Highland Avenue hill was even more menacing today. In a car or even on foot this hill can appear gentle as it leaves the Fox River and grants scenic views of Elgin's historic downtown. But on a bicycle it can pose a challenge, especially if it stands between your home and your office, especially if by nature of your job you may leave said office several times per day and end up making multiple ascents. It can be especially a challenge if you have only allowed yourself a certain amount of time to make it the office for your next appointment, an amount of time that did not factor in needing to walk half the way because the wind was so bad you couldn't hack it. It is however a far easier climb than the alternatives of taking Lawrence once across the Kimball Street Bridge or National Street.  So, I humbly lowered my gears and pedaled on into a headwind, though up the sidewalk in case a gust decided try to throw me off course.

I used to thoroughly curse this hill, especially before my muscles for this whole enterprise came in. But one day Parker corrected me with his piercing insight as he tends to do, "That hill is not your enemy. It's your friend." Then he pointed to my growing leg muscles.

What climbing Highland Avenue can feel like.
The truth is at age 33 in a lot of ways I'm in the best shape of my life, and begrudgingly, I'll admit a good portion of that owes to that Highland Avenue hill. When I started biking to work I used to take a change of clothes because even as the weather cooled I would be drenched from the effort expended to get up that hill. After two years of a growing bike habit, I rarely break a sweat (and when I do I just roll with it #stinkypastor). Despite a youthful past as a two sport athlete and a weight lifter, I have never had this much strength and stamina. I can carry my kids on my back up the stairs and all the way home from the playground. When I'm not underslept (which is like never) I marvel at how much energy I have thanks to frequent, casual exercise and the opportunity said exercise gives me to release stress which I tend to hold in my body until I develop painful physical symptoms.

Yoga helps too (Shoutout to Boontiva Troung-Quang aka the world's best yoga instructor!).  Once a week I have a time carved out for my favorite yoga class (we affectionately call it "gluttons for punishment" yoga). I also do whatever length yoga routine I can squeeze in each morning on my own at home too. That would be a good start to increasing my physical health. But it's time that I have to set aside. With two small people and a full-time job that leaves precious little time. Enter the "incidental exercise" of my bike commute.

Incidental exercise is what happens "incidentally" in the course of your day when you're doing your normal daily activities. That means instead of planning 20 minutes at the gym per day, I just ride my bike to work. For me, that doesn't even add much time compared to commuting by car. It's like a life hack for your health. The World Health Organization encourages 150 minutes of physical activity per week for adults. That's half an hour a day, five days a week. Working outside your home five days a week anyway? How are you getting there?

For so many of us, our lives are not designed for such a commute. After the advent of the car it became possible to live much further away from the workplace or even the grocery store. Charles Montgomery writes about this phenomena at-length in his book Happy City, in which he argues that this car-led change in design from a public health perspective made folks neither happier nor healthier in contrast to what particularly the creation of suburbia was billed to do.

When we moved to Elgin, an active commute was part of the dream. We were lucky that not only did we find a fairly bikeable city but we also found a great place to live that we could afford at a bikeable distance from my workplace. When Parker decided that both for the income and for the pleasure of interacting with adults he was ready to add a part-time job to his work as primary caregiver to our preschoolers, he had by then already caught the bike bug and looked for jobs within a certain commuting radius. This decision limited his search options but it also led him to a job he enjoys with people who value him and who have become good friends. If it was a limitation, it was also a tremendous gift.

I remember asking the first active transportation advocate I ever knew, Mark Stosberg, when we both lived in Richmond, IN, the question people ask me now: "Is it safe?" Mark replied without missing a beat, "It's safer than sitting on your couch."

I couldn't resist.
Peter Walker writes, "Every year about seven hundred Americans die on bikes, a figure that could and should be significantly lower. But over the same period at least two hundred thousand of their compatriots die from conditions linked to a lack of physical activity." As evidenced by my last blog post, I am painfully aware that it's not as though cycling holds no risks. But scientists who have studied the longevity cost/benefit analysis (yep they're from the Netherlands) have found that even in countries like Britain where cycling is more perilous than it could be, the benefits of bike commuting exceeded the perils by a factor of five (in the bike-friendly Netherlands it was a factor of 9). This level of regular incidental exercise has also been shown to improve mental health and stave off the effects of dementia (How Cycling Can Save the World, 9-10). As Walker writes, if this were a pill we could take, we'd all want to be on it.

Before I met Mark Stosberg, I never thought of my couch as particularly dangerous, and I never knew you could put kids into a little box on the front of your bike and ride around town. Two states, 6-8 years, and a bike commuter transformation later, I feel like for me, it would be much more dangerous to hang up my bicycle for the sake of the illusory protection of a car or staying right here on my couch.

When told that he ought to give up red meat and junk food if he wanted to live longer, my dad replied to his favorite physicians assistant, "Will I really live longer or will it just seem longer?" In the end, the truth is for me, a life without bikes would be what would "seem longer" even if the longevity statistics were reversed. But is it safe? Safer than sitting on my couch.

The endorphin payoff of climbing Highland Ave every day be like...


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