Tuesday, 10 January 2017

You should have been there.

The combination of a winter cold and the prospect of black ice (see Frosty Hollows) has meant that I haven't been getting out on my bike quite as much as usual and so it was a pleasure to go out for a couple of hours on Sunday, get my heart and lungs working and enjoy the
local scenery. 

For the last couple of years as well as going out on my own I've also gone out with one of the local cycle clubs. Some of the club's members are into the competitive stuff like time trials. A good proportion log the speed and distance of every ride. I just join in with the social rides and, if I want to know how far we've gone, simply ask someone else. The trick to going a long way, in a companionable fashion, is to go at talking pace; though I do tend to talk even when we're going up some of the more severe hills and replies are often a little breathless with more than a hint of "shut up". But, the one thing we share, apart from having fun riding bikes,  is a love of the ever changing local countryside. A month ago, on an early morning Wednesday ride, it was the quality of the light and the low hanging cloud that hugged the edges of the hills as we came down through Langdale End. On Sunday, it was the shape of the underlying landscape as revealed through winter trees shorn of their foliage.

I've always been mildly short sighted but, as long as I could still read a number plate at regulation distance, I din't always wear my glasses. These days I wear them nearly all the time. I choose frames that are wider than they are deep. This  means that I can do short distance work, like reading a map, by simply looking underneath them. It also means that my clear view of the distance is framed by the glasses and as I'm riding along I often find myself thinking what a nice picture this would make. But I know that if you try to capture it on film (nowadays, temporarily burn into the pixels of a Charge Coupled Device) it's very hard to capture the full effect. This is particularly true when you're looking at an extended landscape rather than a close detail. 

In the past week I've read a lot of tributes to the late John Berger. One of the things he was said to have said, and I paraphrase, is that he no longer made many attempts to photograph the world around him because it distracted from the act of looking. Imagine a 3D immersible environment in which your every movement changes the perspective and no matter how close you look there's always more detail to be see. I know let's call it reality.

So, rather than attempt to frame the world into a photograph that never quite manages to create the feeling you get when you're actually there, just get out, move around, and look.

Here's one I took earlier from a spot passed on Sunday

Monday, 9 January 2017

Norms that need challenging

In Denmark.loads of people ride bikes. It's normal. I read that some respondents to a physical activity survey there reported that they didn't take any exercise even though they cycled 5 miles to work every day. 

Now I might go out for a hilly bike ride now and then, but most of the exercise I get is simply incidental. I make lots of short journeys (less than 5 miles), the vast majority on foot or bike, and if exercise only feels like it counts if you've made an effort to take it, I can understand why these Danes thought the way they did.  This is a little bit like the way in which older everyday familiar technologies, such as chairs, washing lines and pencils, don't really seem to count as technology; a status that tends to be reserved for everything that doesn't quite work yetBut, just as the pencil was a crucial technology in the development of natural history ( you could bring home pictures of what you'd seen), incidental exercise is crucial in maintaining public health.

A decade ago Scarborough was declared a Renaissance town and lots of public meetings were held. I, of course, took the opportunity to emphasise the positive role bicycles could play in this process. The arguments I made, about public health, pollution, traffic, conviviality etc were by and large incontrovertible (though I say so myself) but this doesn't mean that they were welcome. A typical response was "it's alright for you, you're fit". The largely ineffective words I used to respond to these comments confidently asserted that just as eggs definitely came before chickens if I seem fit it's because I ride my bike.

Back when I had a dog to take for regular walks, I inevitably got into conversation with fellow dog walkers. I remember a few in which what was to me some outrageous remark or other was supported by the simple evidence that everyone the dog walker knew thought the same thing. I'd then point out that if we went into a cafe, in Baghdad for example,  we'd find a group of old men there who'd think something completely different to you but would also believe it to be true because all the people they knew thought it too. At this point in the conversation, a dog could be counted on to need attention and we'd end up going our separate ways. The point of this is simply that most people most of the time do not think things through for themselves, instead they say what they think other people like them would say. 

The Nobel prize winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" drew a firm distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 thinking. Type 1 gives us  fast instinctive decisions and opinions, Type 2 slower, more careful, deliberations. These fast responses tend to reflect the social norms of those that surround us. The wisdom that we've received from others. As someone of limited instinctive social intelligence, I've never been very good at picking up what an appropriate set of received opinions is and have the annoying habit of, if not quite directly questioning what I'm being told, not quite managing to suppress a sceptical frown.

So, when I start talking about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle and the benefits of leaving the car at home, or at least not insisting on parking the damn thing right next to your intended destination, the speed of the typical response "oh you'll never get people to do that, we're too lazy" strongly suggests that this is a Type 1 response and tells me more about the speaker's social identity than whether or not they've got a valid point. It's not hard to imagine that a typical Dane might give a different response. 

Of course there are times in our evolutionary past when it made sense to conserve our personal energy reserves. There's no point going out on a long hunting expedition if there's little prospect of bringing home anything to eat. If you've just had your big share of a wild pig that had to be eaten before it went off, or scavengers came to steal it, then it makes sense to chill for a while and let your guts get on with it. But in an age when many of us are oversupplied with food and can be fairly confident that there will be something on the plate next week, let alone in a few hours time, the need to conserve our energy supplies is hardly paramount. 

Were I to be a visitor from another planet, I suspect I might suggest that the real reason why so many of us are so reluctant  to get around under our own steam is that we've been made car dependent. Not just physically by designing our towns and cities so that it's more comfortable, and feels safer, to drive than to walk or cycle, but also psychologically with cars as signifiers of status and social identity. But that's a tale for another day. 

From the Transport Research Laboratory Report (1997)
"Attitudes to Cycling:a qualitative study and conceptual framework" 

Previously posted in "Dispositional or Situational"

After we've stopped people smoking, or drinking too much, the next biggest impact on their health is physical inactivity. Given that our dependence on motor cars has not only exposed huge numbers of us to noise, pollution and direct physical harm but has also made it possible, indeed aspirational, to lead dangerously sedentary lives, it's high time that the destructive nature of this dependency made its way up the list of our political priorities. 

I hereby admit to having no easy answers....

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Manifesto for Physical Activity

Let's Get Moving is a  scheme we've set up to encourage everyday physical activity. We haven't got any money, but there again we haven't got a budget to manage or employees to direct. Despite this we still think it's possible to encourage people to incorporate more physical activity into their everyday lives and one way we've chosen to do this is get organisations, voluntary, public and private, to sign up to our Manifesto for Physical Activity.

This starts with a simple acknowledgement of the problem, before making a commitment to try to do something about it and suggests one key way in which this might be done.

We acknowledge that physically inactive lifestyles are a major cause of ill health and premature death

We resolve to encourage the people we work with to incorporate regular physical activity into their everyday lives and to work with others to help make this possible.

We believe that one of the simplest ways for most people to do this is to walk, or cycle, for some, or part of, the everyday journeys they currently make.

Now it's easy to sign up to The Manifesto without really doing anything about it. So we're also asking organisations that do sign up, to come up with one or two concrete pledges about how they'd put it into practice.

To get the imaginative juices flowing I've got a few suggestions; in no particular order of significance.

You could give some sort of reward to people who turn up to your site on foot or bicycle.

You could give a reward to an employee who's prepared to give up a site based parking space.

You could give employees/volunteers an allowance for journeys made on foot or by bike.

You could put up notices encouraging people to use the stairs rather than a lift.

You could hold walking meetings/consultaions in the local park or other quiet public space.

You could ban intra office e-mails and encourage people to get up from their desks and walk over to speak to other people instead.

You could set up a scheme for employees, volunteers or clients to exchange garden produce.

You could allow flexible start and/or finish times to the working day so that it would be easier for employees to use public transport to get to work. This way they'd at least walk to and from the bus stop or station.

You could let people visiting your site know where the nearest free parking zones are so that they could complete their journey to you on foot.

You could produce a map with your site at the centre with rings showing how long it would take to get their on foot or by bike. These have the glorious name of isochrones.

You could appoint someone as a cycling or walking champion or encourage people who already walk or cycle to act as walking or cycling buddies to those thinking of taking it up.

Above all, it's about creating a situation where walking or cycling for short journeys is seen as a normal thing to do.

Earlier posts

If it were a drug gives an overview of the health benefits of becoming active

The cost of sitting around in North Yorkshire looks at the likely health impact in the County of North Yorkshire if we got more people moving.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Summer's here and the brambles are growing.

Today is the last day of term and parents will have to start to wonder what they're going to do with their children over the long summer holiday. If you live in Eastfield (a substantial community to the south of Scarborough) you might decide that it would be a good idea to walk with your children the 4km into town and then, perhaps, take the bus back. This way you'll all get some decent exercise and enjoy the sheer pleasure of being out in the open countryside.

But, if you choose to take the most direct, and nicest route, into town by following the bridleway that runs up the Dell and then continue on down past South Cliff Golf Club, you best not wear your shorts. Not, that is, unless you don't mind getting stung by nettles or scratched by brambles.

Overgrown path as it approaches Oliver's Mount

Of course, you could turn left when going up the Dell and join the new, replacement, bridleway that's been built by Keep Moat (the company responsible for the new Middle Deepdale development) and head across to Musham Bank roundabout where you could then take the path that runs through Blue Bell Woods and around the back of The Mere. But, then again you'd be out of luck because the path here is also overgrown by nettles and brambles,

Path from Musham Bank overgrown by brambles

The new path goes off to the left from the Deepdale bridleway

It then crosses fields as it heads to Musham Bank

Where it joins another bridleway before going down the lane to the roundabout.

We know that low levels of physical activity are beginning to cause major health problems and that the best way to avoid these problems is to incorporate physical activity into our everyday lives. The simplest way to do this is to stop being a passenger and start  getting places under our own steam. 

Politicians, health workers and public servants need to begin to take this issue much more seriously. I've no doubt that the cost of clearing a few paths will be more than covered by savings in health spending but, for reasons about which I can speculate but won't go into here, it just doesn't seem to be happening.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Let's Get Moving

There are lots of links between physical activity and health (see references at the end).

We've recently formed a partnership of official and voluntary bodies with the aim of encouraging the people they deal with  to incorporate physical activity into their everyday lives. Quite simply this means walking or cycling for some, or part of, the journeys that you'd normally make by car or bus.

To bring attention to this we've produced a Manifesto for Physical Activity for organisations to sign up to and, so that the something actually happens as a result, make some pledges about how they'd put this commitment into practice.

We acknowledge that physically inactive lifestyles are a major cause of ill health and premature death

We resolve to encourage the people we work with to incorporate regular physical activity into their everyday lives and to work with others to help make this possible.

We believe that one of the simplest ways for people to do this is to walk, or cycle, for some, or part of, the everyday journeys they currently make.

Now it's possible to produce a list of all the diseases where the risk can be dramatically reduced - Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, various cancers and dementia - but this doesn't explain why such a simple thing as having a regular brisk walk can have such widespread effects. 

So, I began to look at the basic science and see if there was a simple underlying cause.. 

What happens when you stop being active

So, here's the simple story.

Our bodies have a whole host of complex feedback mechanisms that allow them to respond to changing circumstances. That's why your heart beats faster if you start walking quickly, why your pancreas releases insulin in response to a rise in blood glucose and why you start to shiver when you get too cold. The detailed mechanisms of nerves and signalling molecules are complicated but they work. 

These feedback mechanisms have evolved over our entire evolutionary history, since before homo sapiens existed, and expect us to be physically active.

Physiology, which I once studied in rather more detail than I can now remember, is the study of the normal functioning of the body and physiologists have looked at the experiments carried out on either sedentary humans, or caged animals that can't move about much, and discovered that it's often the inactivity that's causing the problems not whatever else is being done to them. E.g. mice that have been genetically engineered to be hungry put on weight and show many of the early symptoms of diabetes. Put a wheel in their cage so that they can run around and these effects disappear. (Booth and Laye J. Physiol 2009)

So, what's normal for the mice, and what's normal for us, is to be physically active and it isn't difficult to appreciate the evolutionary reasons why this should be the case. 

‘The selective advantages of increased activity capacity are not subtle but rather are central to survival and reproduction. An animal with greater stamina has an advantage that is readily comprehensible in selective terms. It can sustain greater levels of pursuit or flight in gathering food or avoiding becoming food. It will be superior in territorial defense or invasion. It will be more successful in courtship and mating’ (Bennett & Ruben, 1979)

That's it. Your body has evolved expecting you to be physically active. If you're not, then the regulatory systems that keep your heart and circulation working properly, keep your glucose control system working properly, maintain your bone density, reduce the risk of some of your cells multiplying uncontrollably (cancer), maintain good blood flow to the brain and help wounds heal etc. can't work properly.

Earlier posts

If it were a drug gives an overview of the health benefits of becoming active

The cost of sitting around in North Yorkshire looks at the likely health impact in the County of North Yorkshire if we got more people moving.

Finally, a picture that illustrates how we've been normalising sedentary behaviour.

Done Walking, started dying

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A big sign for the Cinder Track

My blog posts serve a number of purposes. If you could be bothered to look back over them you'd find some that are slightly self indulgent bits of philosophical whimsy (which I hope are grounded in a reasonable version of reality), others are on the more solid ground of basic science and yet more are there to make some political point, sometimes global but often extremely local. The key local themes have at their heart the promotion of everyday physical activity (walking and cycling) and the benefits that this can bring not only to individuals but also to the community as a whole. In particular I've been inordinately keen to encourage the development of the old railway line from Scarborough to Whitby (the Cinder Track) as a high value route for walkers and cyclists.

During the what now seem halcyon days of the last Labour Government, there was a lot more money around to invest in public space and we managed to make significant improvements to the track and a number of adjoining play spaces. At an even more practical level, with the help of the then Future Jobs Fund, we managed to sort out where all the Track's drains were and began to get them back into decent condition. With a house the main thing to look after is the roof, with the Track it's the drains. Along the way we also managed to get a number of big information boards in place; in Whitby, at Robin Hoods Bay, at Ravenscar and at Scalby. But we never managed to get one where the track starts in Scarborough.

Notice board at the start of the track in Whitby

At long last we've just about put together the funds to put a similar sign in Scarborough. Some of the money has come from funds given to local County Councillors to support local projects and some, still to be confirmed, from so called section 106 funding (where developers have to put into a fund to support local infrastructure). We've got a firm lined up to do the final design and manufacture, we're gathering a set of interesting photos, including some pictures of the old railway as it used to be near the site of the sign, but still need some bespoke words to go with them. My job is to come up with about 500 words as a first draft and this blog post is a way of obliging me to get on with it.

"You are standing in what was once the goods yard on the old Scarborough to Whitby railway. This ran for 80 years (until 1965) carrying passengers and goods up the coast to Robin Hoods Bay, Whitby and all stops in between. After closure it was bought by Scarborough Borough Council and became a route for walkers, cyclists and equestrians. Running up through the town's northern suburbs, it's only a couple of miles until you get into open countryside and just a few more until you're in the North York Moors National Park

The line was joined to the main Scarborough to York line by a tunnel under Falsgave Road and, after dropping off their passengers at the then Excursion Station on Londesborough Road, the empty carriages would pass through here on their way to be parked up in carriage sidings on what are now playing fields just north of Manor Road Cemetery.

It was called the Cinder Track by locals in Scarborough, simply because the track bed was made of cinders rather than the more usual crushed stone. Apart from short sections in Scalby, Ravenscar and Robin Hoods Bay, most of it runs along the route of the original line and in many places the surface is still made of cinders.

Four miles up the line in Burniston, the Track goes over the aptly named Rocks Lane. Go down this and after about a mile you come to a steep path leading down to the rocks at Crook Ness. This is also one of many places you can join the Cleveland Way which runs along the cliff tops.

A mile further up the Track and you'll find that the old station at Cloughton has become a popular stop for tea, cakes and other refreshments.

At this point the line begins to climb steadily towards the mid point at Ravenscar. On the way you could always stop off at The Hayburn Wyke Inn or take a short walk down through the woods to the rocky beach where the Hayburn Beck cascades into the North Sea.

As the Track winds its way up the coast, passing through rich woods and crossing numerous small streams, it emerges into open countryside with clear views out over the North Sea. This was the vantage point chosen for one of Britain's first radar stations. Although just a collection of concrete buildings, the views and the excellent information from the National Trust, makes it well worth a visit.

Go onto the platform of the old station at Ravenscar to find out about the town that never was, or continue along the road to rejoin the Track at the National Trust Centre overlooking Robin Hoods Bay. Keep going and you could drop down to the Youth Hostel at Boggle Hole or carry on over the next hill and down into Whitby.

Nowadays the Track is well used by locals as a walking and cycling route to school, to work, to the shops, or to play. Where will it take you?"

Ravenscar Radar Station (built 1941)

Looking back to Scarborough from the rocks at Crook Ness

Monday, 6 June 2016

I blame blame culture

It may not have escaped your attention that, instead of attempting to come to terms with the complexities of modern life, many people choose the simpler option of finding someone, or something, to blame. Let's call this phenomenon blame culture.

We blame poor people for their poverty, fat people for their obesity and immigrants for taking our jobs, lowering our wages and crowding out our schools and hospitals. 

Rather than face up to what were once known as home truths - like the simple fact that we've elected a government that actively wants to shrink the state and that's why the schools and hospitals aren't getting the funding that's needed - or being prepared to accept responsibility for our own actions - we're the people littering the streets, drinking too much and failing to pay attention - we find it easier to pin the blame on someone else. 

Build a wall to keep out the Mexican rapists, leave the EU to stop all those Poles with their annoying work ethic from taking our jobs, and all will be well with the world. We'll be back in charge of our own destiny and the glorious future that we no doubt deserve, because of our obvious innate superiority, will simply follow along just as day follows night.

But, if and when we are back in charge of our own destiny, remember that there'll be no one else to blame if at all goes tits up, as it were*.

*The ending of Henry James' short novel Washington Square has always struck me as almost perfect

"Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy work, had seated herself with it again--for life, as it were."