Cycling could play a significant role in maintaining health and wellbeing among older people but the UK is not seizing this opportunity argue Ben Spencer and Tim Jones of Oxford Brookes University.
Regular cycling, even over short distances, can help reduce blood pressure, improve heart health, boost self-reported wellbeing, reduce the risk of cancer and diabetes and lead to weight loss (Cavill and Davis 2007). Cycling could also improve wellbeing by enabling older people to maintain social networks and engage with the outside world.
But despite the potential role of cycling only one per cent of all journeys by over 65 year olds in the UK are made by cycle. This compares with 9 per cent in Germany, 15 per cent in Denmark and a 23 per cent in The Netherlands (Pucher & Buehler, 2012). Why is there such a disparity with our northern European neighbours? Topography might be one reason but Germany is ‘topographically challenged’ and still achieves nearly ten times more cycling amongst the over 65s than the UK. Could it be that these countries offer a more supportive environment for older cycling?
Cycling can become more challenging as people get older and fear of injury and concern about safety lead many people give it up (LifeCycle, 2010; ELTIS, undated; WHO, 2002). Cycle promotion needs to be underpinned with improvement to the physical and social context within which cycling takes place, a point made by Das and Horton (2012) in The Lancet, ‘For too long the focus has been on advising individuals to take an active approach to life. There has been far too little consideration of the social and physical environments that enable such activity to be taken.’
Discussion about developing the right conditions to support older people’s cycling is still in its infancy. Older people in the UK are regarded as citizens who lack the capacity to cycle or who simply don’t want to cycle. Policy guidelines concerning older people’s mobility typically focus on access to public transport and conditions for walking. Similar attention to cycling coupled with rapid developments in bicycle technology and increasing diversity and availability of electric-bicycles (‘E-bikes’) could enable more people to cycle in older age.
The 3-year cycle BOOM study aims to develop a deep understanding of cycling amongst the older population by deploying a variety of novel methods across four case study areas (Oxford, Reading, Bristol and Cardiff) in the UK. The ultimate aim is to provide robust evidence to policy makers on what needs to be done to enable older British citizens to enjoy the same opportunities to cycle as their counterparts in northern Europe.
Ben Spencer and Tim Jones, cycle BOOM
cycle BOOM is led by Dr. Tim Jones at Oxford Brookes University and is funded under the UK Research Council’s Life-Long Health and Wellbeing programme (Grant No. EP/K037242/1). Other institutions involved are the University of Reading, Cardiff University and the University of West of England. Project partners include Raleigh UK, Film Oxford, Sustrans, Age UK and the Department of Transport.
Cavill, N and Davis, A 2007 Cycling and Health: what’s the evidence Cycling England
Das, P. and Horton, R., 2012, Rethinking our approach to physical activity, The Lancet, Volume 380, Issue 9838, Pages 189 – 190, July 2012 DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61024-1
ELTIS (undated). Case study: Pedelec testing for senior citizens in Graz (Austria). http://eltis.org/index.php?id=13&study_id=2935 [Accessed: 03.01.14].
LifeCycle 2010 Bringing Cycling to Life: The LifeCycle Best Practice Handbook. FGM-AMOR.
Pucher, J. and Buehler, R. 2012. City Cycling. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
World Health Organization. 2002. A Physically Active Life through Everyday Transport (with a special focus on children and older people and examples and approaches from across Europe). Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe.