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Cycling amongst older adults
Dr Chris Rissel is a Professor of Public Health at Sydney University. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed articles and has strong interest in obesity prevention, active travel, and cycling advocacy. His latest research project looks at the potential of cycling to improve health and wellbeing amongst older Australians.
Adrian: Can you tell me how you first became interested in cycling as a researcher?
Chris: I became interested in the physical activity benefits of active travel. We need to do a lot more to encourage people to be physically active. Only half the population is sufficiently physically active and we need a quantum change to fix this, and I thought active travel is the answer. Internationally you can see that in places where people cycle, walk and use public transport more, they’re thinner and more physically active. I got interested in cycling because of all the active travel modes, it has the most capacity for increase in Australia.
Adrian: Now your latest research project looks at the health benefits of cycling amongst older adults. Can you tell me how you became interested in this topic?
Chris: Well, there are already lots of people doing things with kids and cycling, and for adult commuting cyclists. However, for older adults in Australia, after you get to the age of 55, the proportion of people cycling just drops away completely so there’s a massive gap and no-one has done anything for cycling with older people. So I thought, are there health benefits in having more older people cycling? A big problem for older people is the risk of falls. The health care costs of falls are enormous. If cycling could change the risk factors of falls – with increased leg strength and balance – then it’s a really great strategy to promote cycling for older people. Reduce people’s risk of falling and increase their levels physical activity would be a massive WIN-WIN for older adults
Adrian: What are key things you’ve found from this research?
Chris: There are two stages of the project. The first was a cross-sectional study to see if there is any variation in leg strength and balance amongst people who cycle and those who don’t across all ages. We found that there was an association between cycling and balance, so if you cycled in the last month, you had better balance measures that if you hadn’t. The next phase was to see what happened if you took older adults and got them to cycle for at least an hour a week over twelve weeks. Would you see an improvement in leg strength and balance measures that would help prevent falls? We recruited 20 older adults to start cycling again and those people did improve their balance measures but not (statistically) their leg strength measures. I think the reason we didn’t get any improvement in the leg strength was because the measure we used was a limited one. Cycling has a pedaling action so it’s not just an isometric muscle test.
Adrian: Now the participants in your study were required to do a BikeWise cycling course as part of the project. Can you tell me why this was the case and what impact did it have on the participants?
Chris: We wanted our research participants to do the course because a lot of people hadn’t been cycling for a long time. They were ‘rusty riders’ and the course had an excellent reputation from other people who’d done it. People really improved their skills and confidence from it. It was also important from a risk management perspective that we needed to show that they’d done some training. The skills course was a really important starting point to get people cycling. From there, many of the riders were supported with rides organised by the Canada Bay Bicycle User Group. Being able to ride with other people made such a big difference to our participants and the Canada Bay people were fantastic in organising regular rides.
Adrian: If you were to develop a cycling education program that was specifically targeted for older adults, what would want to have in it?
Chris: Well, getting the basic cycling skills is important. The road riding side of it needs to be tailored to the pace and the style of the older riders. We had feedback from a couple of participants who went to a more mainstream course with a bunch of younger people and they felt kind of inhibited because they weren’t as quick to pick up some of the skills. They just needed to go at a slower pace. People feel more confident if there are with other people like them and so it helps to have a group dynamic where people feel like they understand each other and where they’re coming from. It really helps if you can ride with other people for the first few times, so providing ongoing support is important.
Adrian: So speculatively, where to now with this research?
Chris: Well, having got successful pilot study results, we need a bigger sample to demonstrate more conclusively that it wasn’t just an artifact of the people we had. We’ll need a control group and clearly we’ll want to come up with a better measure for testing leg strength. It seems obvious that cycling will increase your leg strength, but we weren’t able to show this at a statistically significant level. A better measure will no doubt pick that up. So that would be the next research side of it. I think it’s also important to use the results in an advocacy sense. I’ll be keen to communicate the results amongst older adult forums.
Adrian: Now my father is a baby-boomer in his 60s. He grew up in the country and proudly tells me that he used to cycle 10 miles to school each day on a bike with one gear. Other than a fair share of nostalgia, how do you think older adults feel about cycling today?
Chris: Well we interviewed all our participants before and after the program. They didn’t feel any different to the way most adults feel about cycling. They all have good memories of it and a lot of them want to ride again. They wanted to ride with their grandchildren, to ride socially because their friends are doing it, and because they feel like they need to be more physically activity because they’ve let it slip and cycling seems like an easier and fun thing to do. They see cycling as a good option, compared to running or joining a gym. They all have the same concerns about riding on the road, traffic, and aggressive drivers. They weren’t particularly concerned about injury risks. They were no different from anyone else. We obviously spoke to the people who were keen and motivated and there would be other people who have already decided that they’re too old to cycle. It’s not necessarily the case. It’s just an attitude and a mindset.
Image credit: DPS Guide
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