Gretchen Patch, M.P.H. is Director of Strategic Health Programs for the American College of Sports Medicine where she oversees the ACSM American Fitness Index and ActivEarth Initiative. She currently lives and works in Indianapolis, IN.
If a physician prescribes a course of treatment to reduce a patient’s anxiety, improve sleep or deal with a chronic medical condition, would you expect the patient to head to the pharmacy? What if that treatment instead had the patient lacing up their sneakers and airing up their bike tires? Active transportation, otherwise known as walking, biking, or other human-powered transportation, is a low cost, high impact prescription that health care providers can offer to improve their patients’ mental and physical health.
For millions of people, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically altered their day-to-day routines. In some cases, this has resulted in increased walking or biking to local businesses and parks in lieu of daily commutes on crowded roadways or public transit. While trends are still being watched, we already know that a tiny portion of Americans use active transportation regularly. The 2020 ACSM American Fitness Index recently reported that less than 5% of residents in the 100 largest U.S. cities walk or bike to work in a normal year and just 7% use public transit.
While the U.S. may never be a cycling haven like Copenhagen, there is progress to be made in providing community infrastructure that facilitates safe, active transportation. In response to sudden and high demand, many cities closed streets to vehicle traffic to allow more room for al fresco dining, outdoor retail displays and safely-distanced pedestrian traffic. Cities have also added temporary bike lanes, slowed speed limits in neighborhoods, and converted parking spaces to parklets. These modifications are intended to be short-term solutions; however, they present an opportunity to leverage the moment for lasting changes to our built environment, changes that can have significant positive effects on personal health and the local economy.
Talk to your patients and clients about walking or biking as a transportation option. They don’t have to sell off their car and live the bike-only life; walking or biking for transportation a couple of days per week will provide health benefits. In fact, walking and cycling for transportation have been shown to reduce all-cause mortality by 11% and 10%, respectively, adjusted for other physical activity1.
Choose active transportation by walking, bicycling, or wheelchair rolling on your next trip. ACSM’s “Getting Started With Cycling” info sheet can help you and your patients or clients select a bike, helmet and clothing that will lead to a more enjoyable and successful trip.
Explore the science behind active transportation in ACSM’s flagship journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Take action locally and ask your city to make the temporary pedestrian-friendly changes permanent. If your city didn’t make pandemic-related changes, ask for more protected bike lanes, connected sidewalks that lead to desired destinations, multi-use trails for recreation, slower speed limits, streetlights, benches and trees, funding and ongoing maintenance for this essential infrastructure.
It is critical for cities to plan, build and maintain community assets that allow residents to be physically active in their daily lives. After all, the journey to a healthier future begins where we live, learn, work and play.
1Kelly, P., Kahlmeier, S., Götschi, T. et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of reduction in all-cause mortality from walking and cycling and shape of dose response relationship. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 11, 132 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-014-0132-x