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Cycle of life

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 19 November 2012

A Newcastle general practitioner gives his spin on the health and environment benefits of biking

Cycling is Dr Ben Ewald’s preferred way of getting around, but don’t expect to see him wearing lycra.

“I don’t own a single bit of clothing that’s cycling specific”, he says. “It’s just part of my life. It’s normal transport.”

Dr Ewald, a general practitioner in Newcastle, is part of Newcastle Cycleways Movement, a cycling advocacy group that aims to improve conditions for cyclists.

The group has worked with Newcastle City Council to develop a cycling strategy, which was adopted in March this year. The strategy, which aims to make cycling a safe and attractive transport option, includes items such as providing inner-city bike lanes, bike rental schemes and publishing cycleway maps.

“I think cycling is the answer to a lot of different questions and that it’s something worth putting some energy into”, Dr Ewald says. “When I suggest to a patient with diabetes that they could get some exercise on the way to work, I want to know that it will be safe for them.”

Dr Ewald, who has been a regular cyclist since age 5, also established the Bike Doctor section on the Doctors for the Environment Australia website, where doctors compare notes about commuting on two wheels.

“I thought it would be interesting for doctors to share their stories about cycling to work, because it contradicts the image of the doctor driving up in a Mercedes”, he says. “The new image for the high-status professional should be to arrive on a bike and get some exercise on the way.”

As well as the health and environmental benefits, Dr Ewald says cycling is the most convenient and quickest way of getting to places. It also allows “transport equity” for people who are too young or poor to have a car.

“Bikes open up transport independence. Cycling really opens up the world for these people.”

Since having children, Dr Ewald has also realised that society’s dependence on cars restricts children’s freedom to explore their neighbourhood, whereas bicycles don’t usually pose a risk to children and other people on the road.

There’s also a transport security argument, in the event of a fuel crisis. For instance, major instability in an oil-producing country could make fuel prohibitively expensive, causing huge disruption in car-dependent cities. “But if cycling is a safe option, then the transport system is more resilient to these types of shocks”, he says.

Dr Ewald takes his passion for physical activity off the road and into his working life. Through the University of Newcastle, where he works as a senior lecturer in epidemiology, he’s conducting a study testing a strategy to increase people’s activity levels.

The large randomised controlled trial is looking at whether general practice patients who are referred to an exercise physiologist are more likely to increase their activity levels. The study will use an objective measure of physical activity — patients will wear pedometers — rather than the unreliable measure of self-reported activity.

Dr Ewald says there is a tendency in general practice for doctors to ignore inactivity as a contributor to health problems because it is difficult to measure.

He would like to start using an objective measure of physical activity in his practice. “For instance, I could ask patients to wear a device to measure their activity for a week and then those results could become part of our health assessment as much as weighing them or measuring their blood pressure”, he says. “I think that’s the next frontier for doctors and physical activity.”

Dr Ewald has also been involved in another project at the University of Newcastle to monitor medical journalism.

The Media Doctor site, which ranks medical news stories using a standardised rating tool, aims to improve the way journalists report on new medical treatments.

A recent loss of funding means the site is winding up, but Dr Ewald believes it has had some impact on medical journalism.

“Every now and then we’d read a story that meets all our quality indicators”, he says. “I think we succeeded in changing the environment a bit.”

  • Sophie McNamara


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