Health and industry experts have called on the Indian government to take note of the UK's cycling strategy as a means of combating obesity, which has been linked with an increased risk of complication from COVID-19.
According to a recent report by Public Health England (PHE), people who are severely overweight face a greater risk of complications and death from COVID-19 and are more likely to need hospitalisation and intensive care unit (ICU) admission.
In response to the report, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a COVID-19 survivor, launched a 2-billion pound investment initiative to build thousands of miles of protected cycle routes across the country, strengthen the Highway Code to protect cyclists and pedestrians, and encourage physicians to prescribe and advocate cycling to patients.
"The UK's new strategy to promote cycling to counter obesity is an interesting public health policy initiative. We believe India must also launch similar initiatives particularly in urban areas to encourage people to give up motorised vehicles and start cycling to work," said Dr Naveen Satija, Senior Consultant General and Laparoscopic Surgery at Paras Hospital in Gurgaon.
"A UN report concluded recently that the number of obese adults in India grew from 25.2 million in 2012 to 34.3 million in 2016 and to 135 million in 2019. Obesity is itself a pandemic and is a risk factor for multiple lifestyle diseases including diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Obese individuals are also at greater risk of complications from coronavirus," he said.
The senior doctor expressed concern that COVID-19-related concerns have restricted people's movements and curtailed fitness regimens.
"It is important for people to find safe means of exercising in these times," he said. He, along with many other health experts in India, believe cycling is among the safest and most comprehensive exercises during the current pandemic-related movement restrictions, as it allows people to continue burning calories while maintaining social distancing.
"With people staying indoors and abstaining from visiting gyms and group exercise sessions like yoga, we are apprehensive that it will fuel a further surge in overweight population," said Dr Amitabha Ghosh, Senior Consultant- Internal Medicine, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurgaon.
"In these circumstances promoting active modes of transport as a public policy is very essential particularly in urban areas that have poor physical activity rates. Having dedicated and safe cycling routes across cities can encourage a large number of people to start cycling to work. This will not only help reduce COVID-19-related complications but also improve long term health outcomes in the country," he said.
Pankaj M Munjal, Chairman and Managing Director of Hero Motors Company (HMC), one of India's leading cycle manufacturers, joined the healthcare experts in calling for a "strong policy nudge" to promote cycling as a healthy and environmentally friendly transport alternative.
"UK is the latest country to launch a major cycling promotion initiative and several other governments globally are devising similar plans to promote cycling by creating dedicated cycling routes across towns and cities. India must learn from the UK and other countries leading this example," said Munjal.
"In India, we have already witnessed a major spurt in demand for cycles in recent months. A large number of people are actually ditching their cars for short-distance trips. Cycling as a fitness regimen has also caught up significantly post lockdown. This shifting consumer behaviour needs a strong policy nudge to convert it into a full-fledged cycling movement," he said.
According to various studies, cycling offers major health benefits including improved cardiovascular health, strengthened bones, better management of arthritis as well as weight loss.
It is also a good way to stay fit and considered an ideal exercise for people dealing with stress. A study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) concluded that India can save a whopping Rs 1.8 trillion annually from reduced fuel costs, reduced air pollution levels and accompanying health benefits if cycles replace the use of two and four-wheelers for short-distance trips.
The HMC Group said that the pandemic has given a major fillip to cycling across the world because it is a low-cost investment with multidimensional benefits.