health engine - E-Bike

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Prof. Dr. Swen Malte John is, among other things, a health expert at ambi Austrian Mountainbike Institute, which has already developed the topic of "eBike as a health driver" as a strategic theme for the further development of the sport in 2019. This was dealt with intensively at the mountain bike congresses in 2019 and 2020.

This interview is supported by the Mountain Bike Congress Austria, where the interviewee, Mr Swen Malte John, has already had the opportunity to speak. Many thanks to the organiser of the congress, Mr Harald Maier, for making contact.

If "sitting is the new smoking", is "exercise the old fountain of youth"?

Yes, indeed, you can say that. Movement is both a curse and a blessing for us. We are condemned, if you want to see it that way, to move, because then our body also functions as it should. At the same time, happiness hormones are released, because movement causes the release of corresponding substances in our brain, so that we feel good. We are not sloths, it's different for them. They can hang on a branch all day and nothing happens to them. With us, nature has designed it differently. In this respect, you can really say that exercise keeps us young and therefore your formulation fits.

What are the risks of too little exercise, both on a physical and mental level?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also identified lack of exercise as one of the greatest dangers to health and has conducted a major study. This study shows that, unfortunately, among young people in particular, 80% take far too little exercise, and this is a major threat to our health. Because lack of physical activity is a major killer, the WHO has launched a "Global Action Plan Physical Activity", which aims to increase people's physical activity by at least 15% by 2030. A very modest plan in this context, but at least it is a start. It makes it clear that the WHO - which is concerned with the health of all of us - has recognised that if we do not do anything about the lack of exercise, our health will deteriorate in the future. And that brings us to the effects that physical inactivity has on our mental well-being. We know that children in affluent countries are much unhappier than children in non-affluent countries, and this is largely attributed to the fact that they don't exercise enough, which unfortunately predisposes them to being slack. Accordingly, it is a big problem to get even the younger generation to do sports. However, this ultimately applies to all age groups.

Is it ever too late to start exercising more?

Definitely not. Even the elderly, and especially they, in order to stay fit, especially in the brain, have to make sure that they stimulate their cardiovascular circulation, and that really only works through exercise. Of course, they should not go straight from doing nothing to maximum exertion. For this very purpose, the use of an eBike would be a sensible thing to do, because it is a steady circulatory load that most people will tolerate without any problems. However, if you are an older person, it is certainly a good idea to have a medical check-up to see if your cardiovascular function is acceptable. It will improve considerably if you start moving more.

In a lecture you said, "Those who are poor die earlier". What possibilities do you see to escape this fate?

In fact, this is a big problem. The World Health Organisation talks about the so-called "social determinants of health". This means that if you come from the less educated classes, you are unfortunately more likely to fall ill and ultimately die earlier. And the World Health Organisation's proposal is to educate people about the possibilities that exist to maintain their health. In this context, it is essential to increase physical activity. And for this, it would make sense to create opportunities to become active in addition to education. The social classes that are not able to get the information sources they need, as other social classes do, should also learn how important it is to move. Activities such as school biking or sports camps are sensible things, but of course exercise on a health prescription is as well. In my view, that would be an extraordinarily good idea, because we have already heard that exercise is the fountain of youth. If we just get people to move more, then many physical ailments will solve themselves.

What role does the eBike on prescription play in this?

I think that within the framework of a health care system that also sees itself as preventive and wants to contribute to people becoming ill less often, it naturally makes sense to think about it. What can we do, where can we start?  We have already heard, and the World Health Organisation knows, that less physical inactivity would contribute significantly to better health in the entire population. So exercise on a medical prescription is a good idea in itself. Especially for those who haven't exercised much yet and perhaps don't have the knowledge of how important it would be. And this is where the eBike comes in. If there is an elevator, people generally take the elevator and don't take the stairs. We're just being lazy and movement requires overcoming at first. But if it's something that has a fun factor at the same time, it's a different story again. eBike riding is something that everyone enjoys doing. Sitting on a bike, moving around in the great outdoors and at the same time having to invest very little effort, as is the case with an eBike, is simply one of the ways to overcome precisely these hurdles. For those who have not exercised much so far, this gives them a taste for more movement. We know that, from a general point of view, the use of an eBike is an even strain on the circulation, which does not immediately overstrain a circulation that is not used to so much movement and can therefore be equated with light jogging. Then we have the point with eBiking that we don't have a big joint load. If someone starts jogging, especially from a state where they may not have exercised so much in the past, then this may well have an impact on the joints, especially in older people. This is not the case with the eBike, it is a very even load for the joints, which also ensures that they are well lubricated. Therefore, there are a lot of aspects that speak in favour of enabling people who don't exercise that much - for example on a health prescription - to do so in a way that is fun. One can then also assume that they will take up this offer to the relevant extent.

How about, for example, swimming on prescription, a ticket for the open-air swimming pool, so to speak, so that people can go swimming. What would be comparatively different about such a measure?

It's not mutually exclusive, I think it's a good idea. The point is that swimming also puts less strain on the joints. But if you want to achieve an even circulatory load when swimming, then you have to set yourself the goal of swimming one kilometre. You can also do it slowly, but there the resistance is probably greater. If you're not used to that and then have to demand yourself to really crawl a lot of lengths or whatever kind of swimming style, then it's certainly less fun, especially at the beginning, than if you just sit on something. You can always see that in people who sit on an eBike - I can tell immediately from their posture whether it's an eBike or a normal bike. Then you can imagine, from the aspect of the fun factor, that it would probably be possible to attract even more people if you did it with the eBike than if you tried swimming. I'm not quite sure if the free ticket to the swimming pool would be used as often as if there was somehow a way to use an eBike.

Why do you think it is uninteresting for many people to change their lifestyle habits?

Yes, that's just our problem, that we have a certain comfort. And habits are first cobwebs and then wires, and it must be all the more attractive to change one's habits. This brings us back to the theme that if something is fun, one is more likely to think about putting a question mark on one's habits than if it is not fun. It is so easy to move more, it is important for many organ functions and exercise can prevent health problems.

From personal experience, I can say that changing lifestyle habits often involves starting with small things, but then actually already making a big impact. How do you see it?

I can only agree with you there. The experience is also that people who get involved with the eBike are just trying it out at first and then suddenly start covering long distances. If you had asked them beforehand, they wouldn't have suspected that they would manage them either. But they do. And this shows once again that something that is fun and does not involve any particular strain is capable of getting people to change their lifestyle habits.

Do you think it makes a difference whether you are exposed to exercise as a child through sports weeks or not?

Yes, I think that if you have the experience as a child that sport is something that is fun and can be experienced together with others, then that is something that also works very well with cycling. This can help you move back from a phase of inactivity towards being more active. So it's great to offer something like that, and we had said it anyway, that it's a good idea to get more exercise, especially among the less educated classes. Within the family, there are not many incentives to exercise. At least that's what the studies show. Accordingly, it would be great if offers were made by the municipalities, schools or whoever to children to get in touch with sports.

For example, would an eBike club for children also make sense?

From my point of view, that would make a lot of sense. There are several aspects that are important in this regard. Unfortunately, we know that 30% of children are overweight and these children have the problem that they are teased by the other children. At least more often than if they were not overweight, and they also have the problem that they don't physically keep up with the others as well. With an e-bike, the differences would cancel each other out. The children would then suddenly be able to keep up with others whom they had previously been inferior to in terms of sport. The whole thing is also fun and would probably be able to make a significant contribution to the children's self-esteem. In addition, it could also help them to perhaps get rid of their excess weight when they start to exercise more. An essential way to also ensure that the supposed hunger that many who only sit in front of the TV all day imagine is put into perspective. Interestingly, more exercise makes us feel less hungry. I won't go into that in detail now, but there are a number of studies that make that clear. If you just start to exercise a little bit outside, or wherever, then it is less likely that you will constantly eat something in between.

What would you recommend to our readers who now feel like doing more exercise? Where to start and how to persevere?

So for older people, it would make sense to get a check-up if you have had a long period of little exercise. Otherwise, start with moderate exercise, with a steady cardiovascular load and low joint stress. E-biking would be a good choice. It also makes sense for older people to get advice, i.e. a bike fitting, and to make sure that they can sit on the bike in the position that suits them best. This could be, for example, a position in which you adjust the handlebars so that you can sit upright, which is just thought of for older people. With younger people, this is even less problematic; there it is certainly not necessary to do a bike fitting, if no special circumstances are known or to have medical examination now. But basically the same applies: start with moderate exercise and don't jump into anything to the maximum and then perhaps have a failure experience. This may not work so well in the beginning, because you should give your body the opportunity to slowly adapt to more physical exertion. And then you will also notice that it is really fun.

Thank you very much for the interview, Professor John, and have a nice day!

Thank you very much, I wish you a nice day as well.