Let’s face it: finding time to squeeze a gym session into one’s already packed schedule is a pain. Which is why Vancouver family physician Dr. Rita McCracken—a.k.a. Twitter’s #FamilyDocOnABike—encourages her patients to find more efficient ways of incorporating exercise into their daily routine.
Cycling for transportation is one such “three-in-one” solution, where time spent travelling from A to B is also conveniently spent getting physical activity, as well as reducing stress levels.
“If we could get everybody on their bikes, we could see improvements in physical and mental health,” she explains. “And the conversation around personal stress management would be more practical and less intimidating.”
It has become a bit of a cliché in urban planning circles, but that doesn’t make it any less true: if hopping on a bicycle were a new drug unveiled by the pharmaceutical industry, it would command international headlines, considered by many to be “too good to be true”.
For example, the British Medical Journal studied the commuting patterns of workers over a five-year period, and in 2017, published some truly staggering results: regularly cycling to work reduced their overall risk of death by 41 percent, while reducing their risk of heart disease by 46 percent, and cancer by 45 percent.
Dr. McCracken is quick to point out the specific benefits are varied for each person, and the research is still improving, but there is one overwhelming body of evidence she can point to, without any doubt: being sedentary is bad for our health. Decades of engineering physical activity out of our lives, especially in the way we move, has had a devastating impact on our fitness.
A shocking 93 percent of Canadian children do not get the recommended amount of daily exercise, and one in three are overweight or obese. By 2040, almost three-quarters of Canadian adults will be overweight, significantly increasing their risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and costing over $100 billion per year in health care.
Sadly, this generation may be the first in the history of western civilization to live shorter lives than their parents.
On that front, Dr. McCracken is quick to praise the investment in infrastructure development in Vancouver. Thanks to political leadership we now have a network of cycle tracks throughout the city.
“Vancouver has been an amazing experiment in the introduction of infrastructure to increase access to safe cycling,” she says. “The separated bike lanes, for my family and especially my six-year-old daughter, have been absolutely transformational.”
With a 10 percent increase in national rates of physical activity estimated to translate to over $150-million in direct health-care savings per year, Dr. McCracken touts cycling as one of the biggest bangs for the infrastructure buck.
“The bike lanes aren’t free, but they’re not a huge ongoing expense either. It’s not like the creation of a massive new recreation centre, which needs constant maintenance and programming,” she states. “These bike lanes are a great way to protect an important mode of transportation, and encourage people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved.”
But Dr. McCracken doesn’t just talk the talk. She most definitely walks the walk, pedalling upward of 150 kilometres per week on her electric-assisted Haul-a-Day, bouncing effortlessly between appointments, meetings, and consultations.
“I am pretty lucky to live and work in Vancouver, and I try to practise what I preach,” she declares. “I am a professional who works in multiple locations, and has a kid to drop off at school every day, and I ride my bike to do it!”