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everyday exercise

Life, Transport, — April 2020

I'm really conscious of the importance of exercise, especially as I get older — I've read enough of the research on this to know how big the health implications are, and I've even heard Muir Gray talk twice. But I find it really hard to exercise just for the sake of exercise: I can't see myself ever joining a gym, buying household exercise equipment, or anything like that.

Under normal circumstances I average about 8km cycling a day and maybe 3.5km walking, which is probably just enough to maintain aerobic basic fitness. (Though I'm missing any kind of upper-body muscle workout.) But half my cycling comes from my commute and almost all the rest from other regular trips, getting myself or Helen to gamelan or choir. And a good chunk of my walking comes from the school run, even though that's only 1km return, with most of the rest coming from walking to lunch and morning or afternoon tea, or occasionally to dinner.

I used to do the occasional recreational Sunday cycle trip with Cycling UK, maybe 50-60km, but haven't for ages. And I might do half a dozen longer recreational walks a year. (On holidays we don't cycle but might walk 8-10km a day.)

So most of my exercise has just disappeared now we're in lockdown. I try to get myself out of the house for a fast 45min walk each day, but that can be a struggle — I've averaged 2.5km/day over the last month — and it's even harder getting Helen or Camilla out. I try to find a new location or route for each trip (the Southfield golf course is nice with no golf happening), but am thinking I need a long-term goal like trying to walk along every street within 2km of our house.

It's mostly fairly easy to stay away from people, but easier on back streets (where someone can step onto the road when the pavement is too narrow, or you can just walk down the middle of the street) rather than off-street paths (which are often just too narrow) or main roads (where's there's often still too much traffic to allow use of the carriageway to avoid people).

I had the thought that rationing of exercise outings might make them more attractive, but that doesn't seem to be the case. There are more people out and about in East Oxford in the middle of the day, but there's no school-run bustle, no crowds in town shopping or going to work, no crowds on Cowley Rd, and so forth, so I think my experience is typical and overall physical activity is actually down. Presumably the third of English adults who didn't do even ten minutes of brisk walking a month before still don't.

Which is why interventions such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (PDF intro) are so powerful. Make driving local trips a little less easy and convenient, and walking or cycling safer and more comfortable, and some people will shift to active travel for trips they do regularly. (One study suggested an average of 41 minutes extra walking or cycling per week for residents in the Waltham Forest low traffic neighbourhoods.) Since these interventions affect whole neighbourhoods and are permanent and on-going, they are in the long-term vastly more cost-effective — despite their headline costs — than encouraging exercise, subsidising weight-loss programs, and so forth.

Update: it seems that if I don't stop, I average 6km/hr walking around East Oxford. I had assumed 5km/hr, but that's probably on less even surfaces with more ups and downs, carrying a pack.
May update: I'm now trying to do five minutes a day of jumping on the trampoline. And Helen is doing a 6km cycle with me every couple of days - at 7km/hr, so not much of a workout, but it's something.


  1. From what I can see more people are out doing exercise than ever before, you are probably right about the third of English adults still not doing ten minutes of brisk walking, and no matter what happens they won't. Most people who are out now, including me, seem to be adopting a much more sedate pace, really maximising their time outside. What surprises me though is that people have not adjusted their schedule, and seem to exercise at the same time as a lot of other people. It is likely that the flexibility of their work situation has given them a little more freedom with regard to timing but they are not utilising that to minimise their potential contact with other people.

    If the overall effect of low traffic neighbourhoods is what we see at the moment and the results of the study you mention accurate then I think it is good from a personal point of view. I don't know what will happen to businesses in these neighbourhoods, one assumes that there would be less supermarket shopping and more local shopping with the gap between what you can get locally, and at an acceptable price, being filled by online traders.

    slightly off topic:

    I also think that now is the perfect opportunity to look at the necessity of staff coming in to cities to work. After the initial teething problems people will be working acceptably and adapting their processes to maintain productivity. If you take the university admin offices in Wellington Square for example, that will be functioning acceptably I am sure by now, so why not have cheaper smaller offices outside oxford if they really need them and convert the Wellington Square building in to student residences. Apply that to colleges and admin buildings all around oxford, how much student accommodation would you be able to save needing to be built.

    Comment by Rob — April 2020
  2. I've been trying to work out the best times to go to avoid people - other than, obviously, midnight to 6am. Probably Strava has that kind of information, but I can't seem to find it (maybe premium users get more here?).

    Transport interventions will have effects on businesses, but I think you're right about them changing where people go, not changing what they buy. So maybe people in East Oxford will go out to dinner on Cowley Rd instead of driving to Jericho (if, say, the only way to drive to Jericho is via the ring road). And people in Witney might go out somewhere local rather than driving to Oxford. Overall I'd expect a reduction in car ownership and use to favour local businesses, at least over out-of-town garden centres and supermarkets and shopping centres. But this probably deserves a blog post of its own.

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  3. I don't think Wellington Square would work if it were out of town. Probably half the staff are directly student- or staff-facing - the student services people, in IT the web and desktop people - and while the others - myself, finance, HR, management - could conceivably be separated, in practice there are gains from co-locating them with the others. Oxford just needs to build one of these https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/15/forward-thinking-utrecht-builds-car-free-district-for-12000-people somewhere within cycling distance of the city centre (the next greenfield development west of Barton maybe) and most of its housing problems will go away.

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  4. Once you get to 50, loss of muscle accelerates and it is hard to get it back. As well as aerobic exercise, (yours seems fine), you need to strength training to build and maintain muscle. It also helps prevent T2DM. This doesn't require a gym or expensive equipment, the old style calisthenics work fine if you don't have chronic joint injuries yet, maybe with some cheap resistance bands to provide load with reduced risk of injury. Things like calf raises, leg lifts, situps, push-ups (starting on your knees, can use handles or dumbells is your wrists are weak) along with appropriate stretching.

    However, if you are 50 and haven't been doing any you strength exercises you will need to will need to start gentle and with some expert advice. If you have only been doing walking and cycling your core and upper-body will be weak. 50+ year-olds injuring their back or rotator cuffs when returning to the upper-body exercises they used to do is a cliche.

    Tai Chi isn't bad place to start, it gently strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligament that support joints and is social. Peter can teach you about that.

    Comment by Pertinax — April 2020
  5. Tai Chi sounds like a good idea, thinking about this, though actually motivating myself to do it may be hard. There are lots of groups in Oxford, including some daytime ones near work.

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  6. Peter and I have been doing Tai Chi for some years. Now with 'social distancing' and only two people allowed out together we have modified our local park group. It is a big enough area so that we can spread out and look like a strange lot of individuals all doing much the same thing. It does mean that one needs to know a bit about the moves.
    Hope the police don't come and fine us.
    We do three mornings a week and I find it a very important part of my health and happiness.
    It's a moving meditation. Do it !
    Vera Yee

    Comment by vera yee — April 2020
  7. I guess Instagram and Facebook would also give you information about when and where people are going out.
    As you know I love driving and cars, but I love the peaceful roads of the current situation more. I wonder if it would be possible to get useful data on the effects of closing particular roads now or because a lot of businesses are shut and people not commuting it would be next to useless. Maybe if they opened the restaurants and shops first before lifting travel advice and opening the uni and the schools we could get an indication of the effect on the businesses which is obviously a major concern for livelihoods etc.

    You may be right about Wellington Square and that's an interesting read about Utrecht. It is being built for purpose, unfortunately the builds over here tend to be more built for profit than purpose.

    I wonder if more outside exercise equipment in green spaces, like in South Park would encourage not just younger generations but older ones too, low impact stuff. My dad enjoys using equipment he comes across on his walks but he would never instigate his own exercise routine at home.

    Comment by Rob — April 2020
  8. There are definitely more people out for walks and jogs at 7 a.m. than usual. I encountered one colleague I'd never seen out on the Thames path and he told me it was because the pools are shut. (I need to readjust my body clock so that I can get back to the 6-7.00 slot.) Danny, there are upper-body exercises you can do at home without specialist equipment, and others that require fairly minimal weights. Pushups require no equipment (start with the half-body knees-on-ground version, 3 series of ten with short pauses, and then move on to full-body pushups, also in series). And try lying on your back on the ground doing the classic 'aeroplane' flying move with Helen supported partly on your legs, partly with your arms, and move her up and down. Squats and sit-ups also require no equipment; sit-ups are good for core body muscles. But I do agree that most people will not do this sort of thing and in any case more movement integrated through regular outdoor everyday activities is the best base-line from which to work.

    Comment by Jenny — April 2020
  9. I need to finish that piece on housing! Would be great to see a developer with some land and some clout and a long-term perspective - Christ Church college maybe? - try to sell Oxford City Council something really ambitious. Maybe not a clone of that Utrecht development, but something at that scale and density, and car-free to make it more attractive to Oxford workers than London commuters. (The Merwede development has a footprint of only 24 hectares, so two thirds that of the Barton West development!)

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  10. Some cities in Europe and North America are closing roads and switching motor traffic lanes to cycling and walking, to try to make physical distancing easier. In the UK I think only Hackney borough in London is planning emergency road closures so far. Would be great to see Oxford County Council do some here, they could start with the Headington Quarry rat-run off the ring-road, and the already specced-out Florence Park closures (sans bus gate for the moment). Would need emergency bollards (something like those on Turl St would do) and some temporary signs, but not much else.

    I think, as Rob suggests, that collecting traffic data now wouldn't be very useful because current movement patterns are completely abnormal - even if we don't go back to the status quo, the current situation is unlikely to persist indefinitely. Possibly there'll be a small boom in cycling, though, and it might give people a feel for what their local streets would be like with a Low Traffic Neighbourhood implementation...

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  11. There is indeed a proposal to develop a large area just north of the ring road which is intended to be largely car free. The plan is however to have a (non-through) road running right through the centre of the development, so that there can be a bus service. There'll be a cycle bridge over the ring road. On a different issue - have you noticed now that there's a new traffic hazard for cyclists - pedestrians walking in the middle of the street, or going the wrong way in the cycle lane? It's not really a problem because with no cars around one can swerve around them but it is quite funny to see; anarchy at work. Alex and I came back with our shopping and walked in the middle of Walton St.

    Comment by Jenny — April 2020
  12. Underpasses are usually better for cycling (they don't have to go down as far as bridges have to go up, as they only have to provide clearance for people cycling not for large trucks), but a grade-separated crossing of any kind would be better than the traffic lights they ended up putting in at Barton West! And bus roads are fine, but blocking access to through motor traffic needs to be enforced somehow.

    Many cities are reallocating carriageway space from parking or traffic to footpaths and cycle tracks, using temporary barriers and markings. In e.g. Walton St there's not really room for separate cycle tracks, but they could easily expand the footpaths by removing parking and narrowing the carriageway, and that would (if the barriers were solid enough) help to lower motor traffic speeds as well. (Given the lower traffic volumes with the filter at the southern end, I don't think Walton St needs separate cycle tracks, just layout to reduce motor traffic speeds.)

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  13. Sorry Jenny, I am one of those walking in the road people and in fact I got told off by the police. Can you walk on the pavement please, he was very grumpy, all his friends in London had been racing around breaking stuff up that day, he had been in sleepy Oxford i think was the main problem. I am generally aware of the traffic of all sorts, I am in the road after all.

    Buses are the worst culprit for noise and damage to the roads, running them in to the middle of a largely traffic free estate is just silly. They will require a turnaround point and be idling no doubt in the estate.

    Comment by Rob — April 2020
  14. I don't think running buses around an estate/suburb like Barton is as bad as you suggest, Rob. Realistically there'd never be more than a service every 10 minutes (there's one an hour at the moment) so it's not terribly intrusive. The problem is that the one service there is runs through Headington to the city centre, and if you want to go anywhere else things aren't so good. Which to my mind suggests a higher-frequency small-bus service running (perhaps) in a loop around the JR, Barton, Risinghurst, and Headington, with connections in Headington to other services running into the city centre or around East Oxford. The tradeoff would be accepting changes and less direct routes in exchange for higher frequency services and more options if you do change. (And of course any kind of bus service will be better if private motor vehicles are constrained enough to stop congestion.)

    Comment by danny — April 2020
  15. I do prefer the smaller bus idea, less intrusive generally, and yes, if it cuts down greatly on private vehicle usage it is a better idea to have buses, just not the monstrosities that they use at the moment.

    Comment by Rob — April 2020

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