Maggie Grabow says Americans could save billions of dollars annually through improved health.
Maggie Grabow says Americans could save billions of dollars annually through improved health.
We, as residents of the United States, live in a very unhealthy nation. Our communities are riddled with Type 2 diabetes, something that has trickled down into our elementary schools. Our lung and heart capacities are diminished and most of us wouldn’t dream about walking or biking to work, no matter the distance. 

As someone who works in the health care industry, this makes me terribly sad. Each time I meet a new client struggling with their health, I wish I could magically change the environment they live in, provide them with the mental strength to commute by human power, the infrastructure to do so safely and instill in them fear that if they don’t make some simple lifestyle changes, they will not survive for long.

I, however, as a personal trainer, can only a) reach a few people at a time and b) can rarely force people to alter their behavior without the backing of their physicians. In my dream world, every health care practitioner would treat the root of most health problems which is the very sedentary nature of our society. If we want to continue to prosper as a country, and provide our children with a higher quality of life than our own, we must change course.

As a Wisconsin Bike Fed supporter and board member, I actively teach youths how to commute by bike. Bike Fed programs like “Share and Be Aware” are an excellent start in turning things around. 

I don’t doubt that the younger generation will be much more savvy about walking, biking and taking mass transportation than mine. But we mustn’t ignore their parents and grandparents. These people are our best role models and will teach the young that one doesn’t need to wrinkle up and keel over after the age of 60.  

Although I credit my father for inspiring my love of cycling, I can honestly say my grandmother had just as strong of an impact. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of biking with her into Fort Snelling State Park in Minneapolis, going for a swim in the river, and then biking out for an ice cream cone. We would often ride 20 miles together when she was in her 60s and I was only 10. She made me realize age was just a number and health could be obtained at any point in one’s life.

Never too late to start
Now, as I near 40, I see 60 as being young so long as one takes care of oneself. I have friends in their 60s who could ride circles around me and most 20-somethings I know. One of these friends is Tom Lais. Tom, about to turn 60 himself, is most likely the youngest he’s been since he was a child. His eyes sparkle, he has a voracious curiosity and he bikes year round, no matter the conditions, in Milwaukee. 

This wasn’t the case just 10 years ago. Tom was overworked, overstressed and unconditioned. His doctor gave him “the talk,” warning him of his doom if he didn’t get it together and change his lifestyle.

Shortly thereafter, Tom took up outdoor activities from biking to dog sledding. Now he is one of the lucky few who compete in extreme winter bike races like the Arrowhead Ultra 135 and the Alaska Sustina as well as gravel bike races held throughout the Midwest. His winter weekends consist of long rides on his fat bike and winter camping, combining play and therapy. And even as he’s recovering from a broken fibula that resulted from a spill up in Alaska, he’s already planning for the events he’ll do next winter.

Tom, who works on the business side for Aurora Health Care, shares my concerns. We see what’s broken and are both chomping at the bit to fix it. The problem is, “we” can’t do the work for others. We can only educate, be role models and hope we can convince other folks to improve their own lives.

One of the ways Tom does this is by teaching classes on safe bike commuting through the League of American Bicyclists.

There’s $8.5 billion to be saved
One person looking at the big picture is Maggie Grabow, Ph.D., at the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She recently conducted several studies on the many physical and fiscal benefits of making simple behavior changes. In a paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Maggie and her team concluded that by walking or biking most short trips, we can make an enormous impact on both our health and our economy, to the tune of approximately $8.5 billion a year. 

Her study area included 37,000 square miles of the upper Midwest and the 31.3 million of us who live here. By replacing short round-trip car trips of five miles or less with bicycle trips (just during the warmest months of the year), we could save some $3.8 billion a year in reduced mortality rates and $5 billion more in health care cost savings from improved air quality. If these numbers don’t get our attention, I’m not sure what will.

Furthermore, the World Health Organization has stated that transportation-related inactivity, meaning the use of motorized travel, is linked to increased mortality from heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and osteoporosis. When 28 percent of all car trips in the U.S. are less than one mile, how can we expect to be a healthy nation?

So where do we go from here and what can you do to change your environment? For one, we need to start small. If you don’t currently bike or walk to work or run errands this way, consider it.  Talk to those around you who already do. Contact your local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups and get involved in their work. Finally, urge others to jump on the bandwagon with us.

Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor. She blogs at www.twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.