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Women Bike: ‘We need to sell the joy’

It’s pretty simple: Bikes are good for you.

Yesterday, we were joined by a trio of women who have research expertise and personal experience related to the health benefits of bicycling, as we continue to delve into our new “Women on a Roll” report. During the live Google Hangout, we talked the research and stats that prove bicycling is an immense tool for any woman to keep in shape, and also the personal stories of those whose lives have changed for the better because they got on a bike.

We were joined by:

  • Melissa Balmer, Women on Bikes SoCal and member of the League Women Bike Advisory Board
  • Jennifer Goodbody, Ride 2 Recovery member
  • Anne Lusk, Harvard University researcher

Check it out here, and scroll down for a partial transcript.


Q: Why is this a compelling time to get women on bikes?

Melissa: Health affects everyone… so if we’re not dealing with health concerns personally, we know family or our friends who are dealing with chronic health conditions.  Secondly, Anne certainly can talk more to this, but sedentary disease pandemic in the United States is one of the greatest challenges that we’re facing, and that encompasses heart disease, which you brought up in the report that it’s No .1 killer of women, diabetes, obesity and now colon and breast cancers have no been included. And now the third thing I wanted to bring up, is that in our modern health age, issues that affect women more than men are still not being taken as seriously. And that’s where the media comes in and plays a critical role. The media is where the newest and latest health information is being released, but we know scare tactics and cold heart fact don’t really motivate people to change their behavior. So it’s the lifestyle media, considered more of the softball media, I guess, that is taking this information and sharing it in a way that’s personally engaging…

Q: Anne, what are some of the findings your work has turned up or you’ve read? 

Anne: We were able to take 18,414 women and their reports they fill out each year, and we looked at the data from 1989 and 2005. In these questionnaires they were asked if they walked, and their pace of their walking — either slow walking or brisk walking — and also if they bicycled. So from this large longitudinal study we were able to determine that 50 percent of nurses in the health study walked slowly and if they walked slowly they gained weight. If they walked briskly they controlled weight, but only 39 percent walked briskly. If they bicycled they controlled weight. And we also know that if the women were overweight, about half of that portion was willing to walk briskly. One advantage with biking, unlike walking in which you can really slow down if you’ve had a bad day, you can’t slow down while biking otherwise you’d fall over. So we’ve been telling women in our research that biking had a significant advantage in weight control. …We put on weight as we age, so it’s very essential to control diabetes, cancer, stroke, etc., to control weight as we age… So if there is a routine physical activity that can be a regular part of your day and it controls weight, then we should build environments that make that weight control possible, for all women no matter their income level.

Q: We’ve seen the benefits not only for women’s physical but mental health, as well.  Jen, how has bicycling affected your mental health?

Jen: I’m a veteran and I’m also in recovery dealing with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. I was introduced to the bike about two years ago now. It was like the catalyst that gelled all of my therapy together… It satisfies a couple needs — I’m just a little bit addicted to adrenaline.  Riding on a bike allows me to satisfy that in a relatively safe way.  Just the accomplishment that I’ve made on the bike, I wouldn’t know what my recovery would be if I wasn’t cycling now.  It’s integral to my daily routine.

Q: What’s your personal story, Melissa?

Melissa: I think in a sense I’m recovering as well.  I’ve been dealing for the past 13 years with tensionsheadaches and migraines and fatigues.  I gave up my car about six years ago… For me personally, I was a pedestrian and then a transit rider, but I was afraid to ride a bike again. I was afraid because I hadn’t been on a bike in 30 years. I wasn’t afraid as somebody who’s been very athletic, that I couldn’t ride again, but that I wouldn’t have the strength to really go anywhere. And I was completely forgetting the bike is a strength multiplier — it’s a strength maximizer — and it gets you places that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to go. So it took me a couple of years of watching it… and then when Charlie Gandy moved into Long Beach in 2009, it took about 6 months of him inviting me. Finally what convinced me is he said, ‘OK, there is going to be a Christmas parade bike group getting together,’ and the parade route was like half a mile. So i said, ‘Oh I can do that!’ And I even ended up on the cover not because I was the one they wanted to take a picture of but because I was riding beside this wonderfully charming little child riding, and you can see the picture of me beaming because I felt the same age as the 8 year old. My sense memory of my dad saying, ‘You’re riding by yourself! I let go!’ you know everyone has that memory and that’s really what biking brings up. I walk a lot but it’s not the treat that riding my bike is, it’s not the joy that riding my bike is. 

Q: Jen, have you seen that joy in your bicycling community?

Jen: it’s amazing how much it’s snowballing. We ride as a group together over 7 days, and we do 300 to 450 miles in those 7 days. So it’s nice to see those people who are in the very beginning, very timid and not quite sure, but by the end of the week we’re all a big family and we’ve accomplished something together… It’s that sense of teamwork and accomplishment and camaraderie — it’s pretty amazing.

Q: What if any was your ‘Oprah moment’ — have you had any sort of transformation in your life around bicycling?

Anne: Probably the 1,000-mile ride was the biggest keystone in my life… For me the piece that has been key has been doing the research. When I over and over and over again find staggering results and health benefits from the bike, it helps me 7 days a week producing research.  …One study that found women who had abdominal fat, which we know is far worse for diabetes and strokes, they lost the abdominal fat and got a smaller waste size after biking… So instead of of feeling self conscious going to the gym and putting on lycra and there are all of the body builders, I urge women to get on a bike.

Q: What does it mean to you to be surrounded by people who are embracing bicycling, in spite of numerous physical differences?

Jen: We have amputee riders, double amputees, quad amputee riders. To see these riders just take to it and ride the amount of miles that we actually ride, it’s pretty inspiring.  You go, “If these guys are out here, I can do this, too.” We kind of run into the issue as being veterans of not asking for help very often. It’s kind of against our little code, I guyess you could say. But in the biking community and while we’re riding, if you’re really having a struggling day, someone will come up and put their hand on your back And just that enough can just allow you to go that little bit extra farther… It’s a huge eye opener for for us as we’re in our recoveries.”

Q: What has worked to translate this powerful biking message to women thus far?

Melissa: We need to recognize that we have to have all levels of opportunity… We need to allow them to just put their toe in the water. I applaud and want to be a champion of the female athleticism with bike riding, but I also want us to recognize that the people we really need to get out on bikes might only be able to or be comfortable with riding a couple of blocks to the park. So we need fun — we need to sell the joy.  And in a lot of cases, we need to partner riding a bike with another activity. So food, in some cases drink, architecture, historic rides… The person who really wants to get onto a bike again will ride because it’s a bike ride, but they’ll bring their sisters, their brothers, their partners, their husband, their grandma, their mom, and say, ‘Oh it’s only four miles? I can go four miles.’ [Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates] got 40 to 50 percent participation from women when they focused on rides 5 miles and under and had something fun included.

How do we get these stories out there to more people? Exactly what we’re doing right now, and, of course, we’ve got to become really good at pitching the press. I’m pondering, ‘How am I going to get Carolyn in Glamour?’ How are we going to get Anne’s research tied with these stories so the media says not only are these personal stories, but, damn, these women know what they’re talking about. 

Q: Anne, what has your experience been in getting your research out there?

Anne: I see the research in helping in three ways. One, self identity. If a woman can view herself as a bicyclist, any shape, any form, then she might consider at least renting a bicycle if she’s on vacation, taking the bike off the hook from the garage and dusting it off, going for a ride with a friend. If this bike ride that she’s trying is confirmed in a magazine article that says she will lose weight, have a more slimmed midriff, she will be toned, lower cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer. But in many ways, her self identity — how she looks — is probably front and center on her mind. Because you say, ‘Oh, someone else will get stroke or cancer,’ but you look in the mirror right now and say, ‘I would like to take off 10 pounds.’ And I would add it’s about 15 pounds you take off if you start biking and you do it regularly and work it into your routine.  The other part is to try and incorporate it into your family… biking allows your to bicycle with a 10 year old, with a 5 year old on the back of your bike.. and also a teenage child will bicycle wit ha parent, you all pedal at the same speed, and then if you can  build into that bike ride a reward destination. OK, bike about 10-20 miles and you know we’re going to get an ice cream cone. 

Q: Women have the unique capacity of being a role model for their children or other members of their family. Jen, you came to the bicycle from a recovery standpoint, but are you hooked at this point?

Jen: Absolutely. There is no question about that. This has become my sport that I will continue to do until I possibly can’t do it anymore.  Just being able to see other people who can cycle with their limitations — that to know that cycling is always there for me. So, yeah, I’m totally hooked.  I have to ride everyday. 

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