The BBC confuse being healthy with being sporty

I’ve come across an interesting video from the BBC, who have sent a reporter to Sweden to find out answers to the question

Why are Swedish women healthier than the British?

It’s interesting principally for the bizarre way the report focuses completely on sporting activity, as if that is the only way Swedish women can possibly be healthier.

This country bucks the European trend. They’re sportier. They’re fitter. And as a result, on the whole, healthier than most.

Despite being darker and colder,

[Swedish] girls are much more likely to take part in school sports, and then make it a part of their lives as they grow up.

Indeed, we are told that

On average, a Swedish woman is four times more likely than her British counterpart to be active.

Helpfully the report shows us footage of a female jogger exerting herself, as if we didn’t know what being ‘active’ means.

Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 09.57.40

The rest of the short report is then devoted to a young girls’ football training session –

Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 10.03.36

And an interview with the European 400m champion –

Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 10.04.04

The clear impression created is that Swedish women are healthier because they are sportier, and indeed that ‘being active’ is the same as ‘being sporty’.

This is slightly confused. There may be a connection between the amount of sporting activity in one country and its relative degree of overall health, but it is entirely possible to be healthy without engaging in sport.

Someone at the BBC has presumably heard that Swedish women are much more likely to be active, and decided to create a report on that basis. But somewhere along the line they’ve forgotten that you can be active without engaging in football, or sprinting, or jogging. This is how they’ve ended up with a report filled with women doing sport, rather than just being active, which is rather more mundane. Being active can just involve walking to the shops every day, instead of driving, or cycling to school with your children.

Hilariously, there is actually an example of a woman being active in this rather ordinary way, which appears inadvertently in the programme.

Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 10.17.49

While the camera follows the woman jogging along the pavement, a lady cycles past, in ordinary clothing, on a bicycle on the cycle track beside her. She is, however, completely ignored, presumably because she is not being ‘active’ in the way the BBC have assumed being ‘active’ to mean; that is, dressing up in sporting clobber and getting sweaty.

This is a grotesque oversight, because being active in ordinary ways is an extraordinarily simple way of achieving better public health. It’s a message rammed home by recently published National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance, for instance.

Not everyone likes sport, or wants to exert themselves. However, it’s very simple to get people healthier if they don’t even realise that they’re being active. A bit like school work; it only becomes arduous if you realise that it’s actually work. Instead of exercise being a chore, or something that you have to do, exercise can be built, surreptitiously, into daily life, by designing environments that reward more active modes of transport.

Dutch schoolchildren being active without realising it. Not sport.

Dutch schoolchildren being active without realising it. Not sport.

Retired Dutch ladies being active without realising it. Not sport.

Retired Dutch ladies being active without realising it. Not sport.

Dutch teenagers being active without realising it. Not sport.

Dutch teenagers being active without realising it. Not sport.

If we really care about public heath, this is the kind of activity we should be trying to foster. Not trying to persuade everyone to go jogging.

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20 Responses to The BBC confuse being healthy with being sporty

  1. Chris. says:

    Every time I see an article with pictures of the Dutch cycling infrastructure, it’s always segregated from the road, which is nice enough, but also full of slow-moving, heavy bikes with little or no space to overtake them, not least because they are segregated from the road, so it’s much harder to use to road to overtake.

    This isn’t of course a problem for riding short distances, especially if you’re in your work clothes and therefore don’t want to get sweaty in the first place, but how do they accommodate people who want to ride longer distances, and therefore haven’t got the time realistically to be able to do so at the speed of the slowest?

    I can be active cycling 15 miles each way to work in Central London if I can do it at a reasonable speed, or I can be inactive sat on the train if I’m forced to go at the speed of the slowest on a segregated cycle path because I simply couldn’t make the journey viable on two wheels under those circumstances.

    Am I missing something about the Dutch setup? Are longer-distance cyclists also catered for, and it just happens to be that we only see the cutesy photos of small kids and OAPs on bikes?

    • Aidan says:

      In the first two Dutch photos there seems to be plenty of room to overtake. The third photo looks like it is taken in the center of a town. I live in Cambridge, and even here you can’t cycle at 20mph through the town.
      The point about the ‘cutesy’ photos is that they show how normal people can quite happily cycle when there is adequate infrastructure. Improvements to the cycling environment need to focus on people who -don’t- currently cycle. Confident long-distance commuters like you and me don’t particularly need much to change. We cope pretty well with things as they are, and the sorts of things we want, such as slightly wider cycle lanes, just aren’t going to make a difference to the rest of the population. Have you seen many children cycling along the London super highways?

    • Bertram says:

      The photos you see of Dutch cycling infrastructure by infrastructure campaigners are generally taken in the busiest possible spots, to show as many people on bikes as possible. Generally speaking, you can power through almost anywhere if you are so inclined. On my 25 km commute through some of the most densely populated parts of the Netherlands it is extremely rare for me to have to slow down for anything – car, cyclist or traffic light. The top two photos show enough space to overtake, and the bottom one is of the busiest part of what I suspect is the busiest cycle corridor in the country – the route along the Utrecht city centre busway.

    • Tim says:

      Just to second what others have said, where I cycle in Manchester once I get into town, I spend quite a bit of time getting bogged down in queues of motor vehicles, or waiting at lights. You can’t get rid of congestion in urban centres completely, but I’d much rather be waiting with cyclists than sandwiched between buses.

      And you tend to see photos and video of huge numbers of Dutch cyclists in towns, or outside schools to highlight their huge modal share, but I would also point you towards Mr Hembrow’s articles about the speed on Dutch cycle paths.
      Apparently the guy in the velomobile video often goes over 40mph on his commute. Do you?

    • inke says:

      go to David Hembrow’s blog: ” A view from the cycle path” and you will find your answers there. And Bicycle Dutch is also worth visiting.

  2. Don says:

    “Am I missing something about the Dutch setup? Are longer-distance cyclists also catered for[?]”

    Yes and yes!

    Have a look at David Hembrow’s blog ‘A view from the cycle path’. He covers this topic specifically. Two examples I remember in particular – the video of him overtaking a scooter at 60kph in his recumbent – on a cycle path in between towns. And him doing a 100km round trip to deliver some bike bits to a customer. Those are extreme examples but there are plenty more ordinary ones.

  3. Dan says:

    Even in the UK and in sports mode and on the road, I wouldn’t recommend going fast past a school. And the picture with the Dutch kids is taken at school leaving time with the school in the background, where the huddle of parent can be seen.

    Here in Oxford we have a few Dutch style lanes. And a few schools with almost Dutch levels of cycling to get there. It really doesn’t stop me both using the cycle lanes and cycling for sport as well as transport. I do occasionally have to remind said kids that they need to let people cycle in the opposite direction. It is a small price to pay for having high levels of cycling.

  4. Chris. says:

    Thanks to all for the replies to my question. Interesting reading!

    Aidan – Whilst I’d agree that it makes most sense to concentrate on bringing cycling to people who won’t currently cycle, my concern has been that any changes made to my own commuting route (which includes CS7 from Colliers Wood to just past Elephant & Castle) would result in me being forced off it, as on that particular route I can’t see where they’d find space to make the sort of changes people are asking for other than by providing a very narrow segregated cycle route.

    Whilst there indeed aren’t many children using the route – I think I can remember having seen 2 in the 18 months I’ve been riding it – there are hundreds of adults, and the numbers are increasing steadily. On a warm, dry day, there will regularly be 30+ bikes stopped at each set of traffic lights once you get in towards Central London.

    Certainly I wouldn’t expect to average 20mph through Central London and the 81 sets of traffic lights I have on my commute, but by virtue of sharing the bike lane with the buses, I can ride at 20mph+ on the flat bits between lights, overtaking some riders, and being overtaken by others, because we have the space to do so.

    The Dutch had the foresight to build cycling into the infrastructure over many years, but I’m not sure it could possibly be retrofitted into somewhere as crowded as London?

    • Hi Chris,

      You’re new here, aren’t you? 🙂

      Everything you say has been discussed and debated countless times over the past few years, and all your concerns, you’ll be pleased to hear, are false. So you can stop worrying!

      I recommend you start here.

      At the risk of sounding antagonistic, I must say I find your attitude rather selfish. “I don’t care if every man, woman and child in greater London has access to safe, healthy transport – it might adversely affect me and the rest of the tiny minority of confident, speedy cycle commuters!” Come on, man – we’re trying to have a society here!

      I really hope you’ll take the time to read David Hembrow’s blog (there’s much more than the one post I linked to above) and the many others, including this one, and if you do then I think you’ll find our reasoning to be clear, honest and altruistic.

      All the best,

    • “I’m not sure it could possibly be retrofitted into somewhere as crowded as London?”

      There is plenty of space in London. I suspect the only reason it seems crowded is because the motor vehicle remains the mode of transport of choice for an absurd percentage of short urban journeys; streets clogged up with cars tend to make the space seem far smaller. Amsterdam (and indeed most Dutch cities) are considerably more constricted than London, certainly as regards street width.

      To return to your main point, I’m quite a fast cyclist. I’ve done a John O’Groats to Lands End, I cycle in the Alps on holiday quite regularly. In other words, I’m quite a serious ‘roadie’, as well as a utility cyclist.

      I’ve also cycled many hundreds of miles in the Netherlands. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever been ‘held up’ by slower cyclists; that thought has never crossed my mind. On occasion, I have hit congestion on separated cycle paths, but this is almost always in places where it would be antisocial to go faster. Outside supermarkets, for instance, or by schools, or on busier shopping streets. It really isn’t a problem. I could upload hours and hours of video demonstrating this – it might be easier for you just to hop on a ferry and find out for yourself!

    • beta blocker says:

      “Improvements to the cycling environment need to focus on people who don’t currently cycle. Confident long-distance commuters like you and me don’t particularly need much to change. We cope pretty well with things as they are …” (Aidan)

      I “agree that it makes most sense to concentrate on bringing cycling to people who won’t currently cycle.” (Chris)

      My daughter is one of those girls with a spring in her step, and is quite tall for her age, so earlier this year my wife and I encouraged her to try out for the high jump. I went down to the local athletics club with her, and for a while we watched the older girls doing their training, until eventually I managed to catch the coach’s eye and she came over to say hello. After a few minutes’ chat she wondered if my daughter might like to join in with the older girls? Not wishing to appear rude, we went along with her suggestion, but after ten minutes or so it became apparent that my daughter was getting nowhere and was starting to become very frustrated.

      I went over to the coach. “She has never done this before,” I pointed out to her. “Do you think you might change the height of the bar?”

      “Quite right,” the coach said. “I’ll add on another five centimetres.”

  5. @Chris, re your last paragraph:
    The ‘Danish’ had the foresight to build cycling into the infrastructure over many years, but I’m not sure it could possibly be retrofitted into somewhere as crowded as ‘Amsterdam’?

  6. marven says:

    Not to mention that the bicycle industry has far more potential for higher profits if more bikes get sold than if more running shoes get sold.

  7. Fred Smith says:

    The BBC are probably wary of putting too much cycling in their programmes because it has negative connotations (as a result of their previous programmes). On most things I quite respect the BBC but with regard to cycling I think they are worse than bad. At some point they will catch up.

  8. Ranty says:

    We have a bike to work scheme being pushed (at work!) it mentions saving money and keeping fit, nothing about being a good method of travel to reduce congestion. Also, space. CS2 is mainly a blue stripe and as well as allowing cyclists to overtake cyclists, it allows vans, buses, cars (silver!) taxis to overtake too closely. Plenty of space, though, TfL need to give one lane to cyclists…

  9. Adam Ef says:

    Did you see the Horizon Health programs with Michael Mosley a while back?

    Some of that was about how we lead sedentary lives now and how big an impact just being more active can have without having to report to sport. He was fitted with a belt that measured how much he moves and encouraged to cycle to work, pace corridors when he chats to work colleagues instead of sit down meetings, use stairs instead of lifts, and just fidget, jiggle his leg etc when sitting at his desk. It had a huge effect on calories burnt and potentially his health as a knock on effect of not consuming more than he put out per day. Quite astonishing.

  10. cyclestrian says:

    The BBC just did the same again this morning. Talk of women finding time for exercise in busy lives. Not one mention of active travel.

    • Fred Smith says:

      However the BBC have also just done a really nice portrayal of women cycling on ‘Call the midwife’ (there’s a nice american blog which pointed this out: ). Maybe they don’t believe this kind of cycling could possibly occur in modern life? Or now they’re based in Salford maybe they are living in car-country and have forgotten people can ride bikes to get about? I’ve got no helpful suggestions to help the BBC have a less blinkered view of cycling, but until they wise up they are in my bad books.

  11. Henry Crun says:

    BBC radio 4 ‘you and yours’ had a 30 min feature on exercise today.
    sadly no mention of walking or cycling to work.

  12. Richard W. says:

    Very good article and as usual spot on. Leading an active lifestyle (walking and cycling to the shops, to the station, etc.) is the best way to stay healthy. Yet when I cycled to my local superstore in West London the other day, I could only count 4 bicycles parked in front of the shop!! We have a very long way to go in Britain.

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