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Cycling – a Way to reduce Pressure on our local Health Service

Earlier this week you may have heard about the distressing statistics on obesity in Northern Ireland. If you have not but you walk around any shopping centre with your eyes open, you will already be aware of them.

To recap, two out of three adults in Northern Ireland are overweight or clinically obese, as is one in four children. The Department of Health has launched two public consultations to address this problem.

According to the DoH, obesity-related costs to Northern Ireland’s Health Service run to about half a billion pounds per annum. The costs to affected individuals include reduced life expectancy, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and poor mental health.

While it is commendable that the DoH raises awareness of this issue and engages in public consultation, it strikes me that while the proposed solutions include programs to educate people about diet and the importance of physical activity, it also proposes “specialist support” such as weight loss medication and bariatric (weight loss) surgery. The latter only address the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. What is missing here is a holistic approach. At its core the current strategy deals only with medical measures to bring down people’s weight.

The only effective way to reduce a population’s obesity is education: teach consumers how to decipher the nutrition information contained on each product, what the calorific content of food stuffs is. Teach them to scope out how much sugar/calories a serving of something has, how many carbohydrates it contains, how many grams of fat (saturated and unsaturated), how much protein etc. Knowledge is power. Did you know that a 330ml can of Cola contains about 35 grams of sugar - that’s about nine sugar cubes! I suspect that plays a larger factor in why a quarter of children here are overweight or obese.

Education – you have heard me bang on about this when it comes to drivers and cyclists co-existing peacefully. It is no different when it comes to food. Education about food needs to start in primary school and must extend to engaging with adults as well. I mentioned a holistic approach to this problem: Has the DoH contacted the Department of Education to get this topic added to the school curriculum?

Earlier I mentioned £500 million are spent annually on treating obesity here: that number isn’t far off the total budget for the Department for Infrastructure (£700odd million). I would suggest to the DoH they get on the blower to DfI and ask them to improve the cycling infrastructure here. For mere fractions of the annual obesity spend the DfI could make cycling a lot more attractive here.

People who cycle get fit. As one gets fitter, one replaces fat with muscle mass. One’s cardiovascular fitness improves, the resting heart rate drops, one’s joints work more smoothly. One’s blood glucose levels are reduced which in turn lessens the risk of becoming a Type 2 diabetic.

During Covid we saw a massive cycling boom: people got off their butts and rode their bikes on quiet roads and really enjoyed themselves: their mental health improved despite having to deal with lockdowns.

I would like to suggest to the Department of Health that it takes the first step in breaking down the silo-thinking that is so endemic in Northern Irish government departments: engage with the Department of Education to improve children’s knowledge of which food groups are good for them and which less so. Ask that the Cycling Proficiency Training is put back on the syllabus.

Engage with the Department of Infrastructure and ask for assistance in making cycling a viable contributor to a healthier population through the provision of a cycling infrastructure that is fit for purpose.

In the meantime I would urge the readers of this blog to respond to the two public consultation surveys here.

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