Biking (and Eating, and Shopping) Our Way to Good Health

05/30/2013 05:29 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2013

I have long loved riding my bicycle -- for exercise, for fun, and for transportation -- and I'm a proud member of New York City's new bike-sharing program, Citi Bike NYC. The program allows users to borrow a bike from one location and return it to any of the hundreds of stations sprinkled across the city (someone like me who's signed up for an annual membership can take a bicycle for 45 minutes; more casual users can rent for 30 minutes).

I enjoyed my first use of Citi Bikes to go to a healthy restaurant 30 blocks from my apartment, partly because it was fun to get there! And, I went to a Fairway 10 blocks away and benefited from its larger selection of fresh fruits and vegetables compared to the store next to my building.

I saw on the day after the program started that Twitter and the world of blogs are full of people giving their assessments of how well the system is working and about its prospects for success. Other than to say I find Citi Bikes liberating, I have no particular expertise to evaluate the system from a biking perspective.

But I do think about the public health aspects of this ambitious initiative, and I believe the 6,000 bikes offer a very visible symbol of the importance of getting New Yorkers more active.

I've long argued that, if we as a city -- and as a state, and as a nation -- want to get serious about tackling health problems like obesity and diabetes and heart disease, we need to test and implement not just one change, but a whole host of ideas that together can make a big difference. Alone, the bike-share program probably won't have much of an impact on the health of New Yorkers. But if we can safely and easily bike around the city, maybe we'll be a bit less sedentary. If we can easily get to a full-service grocery store, maybe we'll eat a bit more healthfully. If we can reduce automobile traffic and pollution, maybe we'll all breathe a bit easier.

But it's the cumulative effect that matters most.

Combine this bike program with the range of other policy and environmental changes happening to combat obesity in New York City -- efforts to build more supermarkets with affordable healthy options, to reduce the level of salt in prepared foods and in restaurants, to eliminate trans fats, and to provide nutrition information on menus -- and we could see some real gains in our health.

There is a lot of talk in public health circles these days about the idea of promoting a "Culture of Health." Initiatives like the ones taking hold in New York City can begin to spark a culture change. While it can start with leadership like we are seeing by New York government, the culture change can spread to beverage companies and food producers, to schools, and to homes across America.

Our history as a nation is full of examples of how our culture can change steadily and quickly through many small steps. I just watched a video featuring a discussion about the work of Paul Farmer and his colleagues in Haiti. A key theme of their thinking is that complex social problems can never be solved in just one step; it always takes many actors and many new initiatives.

One of the highlights of being a New Yorker is that our city and state often improve at a rapid pace and our culture is capable of changing over a short period of time. I am pleased that we in New York have been leaders in getting people to think more about healthier lifestyles and that our government, businesses, and other institutions have pushed for environmental changes that support healthier choices.

Perhaps as a next step, New Yorkers can figure out how to tackle the one public health drawback of the Citi Bikes program: no helmets available for rental! The program does encourage helmet use and provides annual members with $10-off coupons for helmets, but already I've seen plenty of riders going without. While I recognize the challenge of sharing helmets (who knows what is going on in everyone's hair!), there must be a creative solution to this challenge, and creative entrepreneurs or inventors who can figure this one out.

I urge you to start here and share ideas you have about how to address the important task of making helmets accessible to Citi Bike riders. And, I encourage you to give Citi Bikes a try. You just might get a bit healthier, and you'll enjoy the ride!