359 Hours in 365 Days

It’s my birthday, and the end of my second year of commuting to work by bicycle, sometimes three but generally four times each week. This year I had one of those bicycle speedometer/odometer/clocks, and it showed me something surprising. In 365 days I’ve ridden on the bicycle for 359 hours, nearly one hour per day, not for the sake of doing so, but simply to get from here to there and back. What a great deal riding a bicycle to work has been! Until I actually tried it and found a way to work around the usual objections – work clothing, sweat, weather, traffic—it hadn’t seemed practical to me. Now, good health seems impractical without it. How else would it be possible for an overweight, middle-aged non-athlete, with a sedentary office job, a family and other responsibilities, to get that much exercise, nearly an hour per day? No way that I can think of. Not without taking time and/or money from something else. I’m not sure I’ve ever done something so time and cost efficient, relative to the alternatives.

In those 359 hours, according to the bicycle computer, I traveled 3,242 miles at an average of 9 mph, so I won’t be entering the Tour De France anytime soon. I typically ride at about 12 to 15 miles per hour on flat ground, but intersections and hills bring the average down to about three times the speed of walking. And taking long walks is about what riding a bicycle that way is like, except for the up hill stretches on the bridges in both directions and up the terminal moraine in the afternoon. That provides about 15 minutes of more semi-strenuous exercise each day I ride to work. Even so, this is probably the most total exercise I have ever gotten, or at least the most since my short order cook/busboy/dishwasher days, when I also got a workout in the normal course of events.

Before becoming a parent I used to go jogging, exercise of the sake of exercise, which I hated but nonetheless did for about 20 minutes four or five times per week. Once I became a parent, there was no time. I tried getting up at 5 am to go running in the dark without taking time away from something else, but couldn’t get myself going to do something I hated at that hour. Later, when the kids were older we got an elliptical machine, which also bored me. I managed to do it about three times a week for 20 minutes, off and on. Joining and going to a health club has always been out of the question for me. It isn’t just the expense, it’s the time, with travel time added to whatever exercise you get. And what do most people do when they get there? Use a machine that mimics a form of transportation like walking, running, skiing or rowing, without going anywhere. That’s even more boring than jogging in the same circular route every day, which at least allows you to get outside.

What I don’t hate and doesn’t bore me is playing a sport. You can get a lot more exercise without realizing that it hurts when you are focused on chasing and hitting or catching a ball or Frisbee. So when the schedule permits I get together with a friend and play paddleball against a (cracked, gouged and pitted) wall in a city park. But I can’t do that every day (or even every week), given the rest of my schedule and his. This weekend we were busy Saturday, and Sunday was (another) rainout. It seems to me that people who get enough exercise from sports must be people for whom sports are right near the top of their priorities. That isn’t so for me. Getting around by bicycle made me sore at first, until previously unused muscles in my neck and shoulders got used to the work. Since then it hasn’t felt like a workout either, as I’m focused on traffic and taking in the sights as I ride. As when I play a sport, and unlike when I am getting exercise for its own sake, I have fun riding a bicycle.

Even when I was getting no other exercise, the trip to and from work on the subway required nearly a mile of walking and, if I took one route, nearly 220 steps. So I was better off, as far as physical activity is concerned, than most Americans. I have always enjoyed walking around the city as well, and hiking around the region, but at one-third the speed of a bicycle walking is only time-efficient transportation up to about three miles. Beyond that, walking is something else that has to be added to one’s schedule.

Over the past year I’ve added some bicycle touring to my schedule. I rode out to Citifield for a Mets day game earlier this year. That allowed me to tour the city along the way, and the trip didn’t take much more time than the subway or (given how long it takes to get out of the parking lot) the car. When friends joined us for our annual trip Labor Day to the beach at Riis Park and there wasn’t enough room in the car, I took the bicycle. On the way home they got stuck in a massive traffic jam caused by an event at Floyd Bennett Field, and I beat them by half an hour. My wife and I have also taken recreational trips through Manhattan during Summer Streets last August, and over to Governor’s Island this July.

Just last week I took my first trip to Baltimore, where there is a college one of my children might want to apply to. We rented a couple of bicycles and was able to tour much of the city, from Charles Village and Hampden in the north to Canton and Federal Hill in the south, in a day, stopping off along the way. With all that exercise, I was able to eat more crab with no net damage. It was so much fun that perhaps I’ll repeat it in some other cities, once the children are gone and I have more time.

So for me bicycling to and from work, and some other places, really works. It’s something I wish I had done all along – I might weight 30 pounds less today if I had. Great credit to those who have been. It’s fun, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t take much more time than taking the subway up to a distance of nine miles, which is how far I have to travel to work. In much of the city it also beats driving, given the difficulty of parking. And it fits with a philosophy of being as happy as possible while spending as little as possible, in contrast with the lifestyle of being miserable while spending as much as possible generally promoted by the advertising industry. My mobility is free from politicians, unions, corporations, and governments and hate groups in countries with oil.

On Room Eight over the past 18 months, I have been focused on two major decisions by Mayor Bloomberg that I object to, decisions I expect to be enormously damaging for years to come. But to be fair and balanced, I’ll give the man credit for getting fully behind bicycle riding as a form of transportation and recreation. It’s a great initiative that doesn’t cost much money and could have a significant effect on public health, apparently a big interest of his, if widely practiced. Getting people to ride bicycles is remarkably cost effective for the government budget as well as the riders, and policies that allow people to live better with less will be essential in the wake of Generation Greed.

Last winter there were just eight days I chose not to ride because of the weather; the previous winter there were two. As I ride toward work on cold dark winter mornings, I see young men and women in their 20s coming out to go jogging in an attempt to maintain their health and looks. When I have arrived at work and changed into business casual wear, they will have arrived back where they started to shower, dress, and THEN travel to work some other way. My advice? They should take a look ahead, because right now they don’t know what “busy” actually means, and once they actually get busy they won’t have time to drag themselves out of bed to run in a circle, even if for some reason that is something they actually want to do. And later on in life, that kind of daily pounding may not be something your knees and ankles can take.