Active commuting: promoting physical activity beyond the consulting room

My bicycle juddered beneath me on the bumpy, potholed tarmac of a narrow country road in rural County Down, Northern Ireland. Despite the unpredictable road surfaces, my active commute to and from work by bike is one of the highlights of my day. Up ahead, an old blue van travelled noisily towards me. I swerved close to the verge and took a deep breath of fresh air, anticipating the acrid fumes which inevitably pour from the exhaust of such vehicles. To my surprise, the van screeched to a halt, and I could hear the driver shouting something out the window, trying to catch my attention as I passed. I was strongly tempted to ignore the driver and continue on my journey back home to my dinner, as cycling to and from work certainly increases the appetite. However, my curiosity got the better of me, so I turned around to see what was going on. Maybe it was a patient from my practice who had something important to say, or maybe it was someone wanting to give some constructive feedback on my cycling technique? I just hoped it wasn’t someone wanting to give off about there being too many bikes on the road…

In fact, it turned out to be something quite different. The overweight, middle-aged driver of the van simply pointed at my helmet and asked, “Do you have to wear one of those hats if you’re cycling?”

I spotted the opportunity to put my communication skills, honed from thousands of primary care consultations, into practice by clarifying what he meant: “Do you mean my helmet?”

“Aye,” he confirmed. “Do you have to wear one of those hats if you’re on a bike?”

Unbeknownst to me, I obviously gave the impression of being a knowledgeable and experienced cyclist. “I don’t think it’s a legal requirement,” I explained, without mentioning my medical background, “but I think it’s better for your head if you were to have a crash.”

Active Practices

It transpired that my inquisitive new friend had been using his spare time during the COVID-19 lockdowns to fix up an old bicycle, which he was now keen to get out on the road. He’d been having difficulty buying a helmet, due to the increased demand for cycling gear during lockdowns. I was tempted to start a discussion explaining how the benefits of cycling for his overall physical health may outweigh the risks to his brain health of cycling without a helmet, but then my tummy began to rumble and I remembered I still had another ten hilly miles to cycle before I got home to my dinner. Instead, I congratulated him on his enthusiasm, wished him good luck with his future cycling career and hopped back on my bike.

It turns out you can promote the benefits of physical activity even in the most unexpected of circumstances, without having to medicalise it. On the way back home, the mental stresses and strains of work were quickly replaced by the physical stresses and strains on my legs and lungs, and I arrived home feeling destressed, relaxed and ready for my dinner!

If you’d like to find out more, and become part of the growing network of Active Practices, head over to the physical activity hub.

About the writer

Richard Mayne, GP, Northern Ireland.