One possible way to look at human history goes like this: as the centuries and millennia rolled by, humans increasingly co-opted other energy sources to supplement their blood, sweat, and tears. The combustion of wood, peat, dung. Oxen. Horses. Slaves. The energy of wind and flowing water. The stored chemical energy concentrated in coal, oil, and natural gas. And finally, the energy of the sun, captured directly.
We’ve also helped ourselves along by mastering the use of the wheel, levers, and other principles of physics to reduce the effort required.
Things have gotten to the point where, what with electricity to power our washing machines and dryers, our stoves and fridges, our smartphones and computers; natural gas to heat our homes and our water tanks; gasoline and diesel to power our transportation, it takes precious little bodily exertion to get through most days. Meanwhile, many of us routinely take in way too much energy in the form of food. (Not everyone in the world is so lucky, of course. A good many people live in energy poverty.)
The plethora of energy available to us has improved our lives in many ways. On the other hand, it has also sickened us. It’s led to unprecedented levels of inactivity, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and all the complications thereof. And of course, it’s also led to climate change and a general derangement of the planet.
Although some people’s jobs do involve great physical exertion, most of us spend our days sitting. Our energy expenditure has shrunk so much that, to stay healthy, we have resorted to taking up exercise regimens each New Year’s Day. We drive to the gym for our workouts, or at least we used to, before the pandemic. We have treadmills in our basements, online Pilates classes, and exercise bikes. Sometimes, we even go out for walks in our neighbourhoods. We get a dog, so we’ll have to walk. Our dog gets obese.
What we hardly ever do is use active transportation. Old-fashioned human-powered energy to get ourselves anywhere, especially places we actually need to go, like work, school, the grocery store, even the mailbox. Isn’t that what our SUVs and trucks are for? And so we spew out air pollutants and greenhouse gases, even as we get fat and unhealthy. Our cities sprawl, needing more roads, more traffic congestion, more parking lots, and more potholes. Our lakes get more salt. Our forests are chopped down, our farmlands paved over.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Here’s one: health professionals Jim and Shannon Boland regularly bike to work at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, saving money on cars, gas, parking, and transit. They also get free exercise. Jim gets stronger legs for his golf game. Shannon gets sheer joy and mental health benefits. And the planet gets fewer exhaust fumes, and maybe, eventually, a few more safe bike lanes.
The health co-benefits of serious action on climate change have been well-studied over the last decade. The two most obvious examples are the health impacts of reduced air pollution and active transportation. Health professionals could turn the co-benefit logic around. We’re always recommending more exercise anyway. So let’s go further and promote not just mere exercise, but the use of human energy to get to places, on foot or by bike, or with the help of e-bikes and e-scooters. The result would be fitter, healthier people, cleaner air, and a considerable climate co-benefit.
The voices of health professionals carry weight. In Toronto, a group of physicians has Doctors for Safe Cycling, bringing their health expertise to the ongoing debate over bike lanes. Northern Ontario health professionals should not be left behind. Active transportation is a tremendous health opportunity, for both the planet and its people.
Haines, Andy. “Health co-benefits of climate action.” The Lancet Planetary-Health. Vol. 1: April 2017.
Assemi et al. “Transport-related walking among young adults: when and why?” bit.ly/3ah8huC.
Kelly P et al. “Walking on sunshine: scoping review of the evidence for walking and mental health. doi:10:1136/bjsports-2017-098827.
Pekka O et al. “Effects of frequency, intensity, duration and volume of walking interventions on CVD risk factors.” bit.ly/3xcslIm.
Dr. Elaine Blacklock (aka @KidsClimateDoc) is a Sudbury pediatrician and science writer. Dr. Blacklock is currently immersed in writing a book about climate change and our health.