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Fred Clements: Sloth and torpor are cycling's big challenge

Published October 10, 2014
A blog by NBDA executive director Fred Clements.

Editor’s note: This blog post was written by Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. Clements’ previous blog posts can be read on

Cycling participation is a big topic in the bicycle trade. The idea that "a rising tide (of participation) lifts all boats" is a great theory and gives direction and hope for the future. But when the tide refuses to rise, the quest for individual company growth can lead to all sorts of tension as companies start to focus on each other more than the consumer, fight desperately for market share, push for floor space and open-to-buy, and wear out calculators to squeeze margin points that aren't really there.

Despite an apparent uptick in urban riding, overall growth hasn't been happening in cycling, at least not recently. In 2013, cycling participation dropped by 9 percent from the previous year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA), with cycling by children (ages 7 to 17) down 43 percent since the year 2000, the lowest participation number of the last decade at least.

That's not good news, but the problem appears to be much bigger than bikes though. There's mounting evidence that flat or declining participation is part of a much larger trend of physical inactivity in the population at large. In fact, the magazine Discovery has referred to sitting in a chair as "the next smoking" in terms of negative health consequences including coronary heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, osteoarthritis, and osteoporosis. Medical costs in the United States due to inactivity have been estimated at $76 billion per year, minimum.

Dustin Dobrin, director of research and information for the NSGA, confirms that in addition to cycling, there are "many sports/activities that are declining in participation," though "not all are declining."

"Team sports have mostly been on a decline" he noted. "Other wheel sports such as in-line roller skating and skateboarding have also been on the decline."

Comparing the NSGA's participation numbers from 2000 to 2013, cycling's 17 percent decline actually looks pretty good compared to in-line skating (down 74 percent), skateboarding (down 45 percent), baseball (down 25 percent) and golf (down 28 percent). Tennis has been relatively flat in the last five years, Dobrin notes, and only running has shown a significant increase among the sports/activities that the NSGA tracks, with an 84 percent increase.

According to the Physical Activity Council, only 32.9 percent of Americans are now active an average three times per week in any activity. A desk calculator confirms that this means that 67.1 percent are NOT active an average three times per week in any activity.

Echoing some of the NSGA's numbers, the council notes declines from 2007 to 2012 of 15 percent in team sports, 6 percent in outdoor activities, 14 percent in water sports, 23 percent in individual sports, 21 percent in golf (eight or more times per year), and 4 percent in tennis. These stats also show that the number of running participants grew by 23 percent and exercise walking by 3 percent, though walking declined as a percentage of the growing population.

Why is this happening? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), factors include "the increasing use of mechanized transportation, a greater prevalence of labor saving technology in the home, and less active recreational pursuits," a veiled reference to electronics.

Other contributing factors are high-density environments, lack of infrastructure, and fear of injury or crime. More people are also engaged in sedentary occupations than previously.

A report for the National Transportation Board sums it up, "It is apparent that a combination of changes to the built environment and increases in the proportion of the population engaging in sedentary activities puts the majority of the American population at high risk of physical inactivity."

WHO's target is a modest reduction of 10 percent in physical inactivity by 2025. That seems like a pretty modest target, given that some in the bike industry have, in typical flamboyant fashion, set a target of 500% growth, sometimes referred to as 5X. There's no reason to aim low, they say. It's genius and makes WHO look weak.

While cycling is certainly well positioned to out-perform many other activities, the trends and lessons from the so-called "pandemic of inactivity" may help us refine and focus our messages. The problem of declining sports participation is clearly much larger than the bike world, yet cycling stands to benefit from any successes in getting people more active overall.

What can we learn from all this? A few themes emerge:

  • More and better research is important so we know what's happening and why.
  • We can learn and benefit from alliances with health advocates and other industries facing the same problem of sedentary lifestyles.
  • Cycling remains as one of the most popular and most accessible options for people to be more active, so anything that improves general activity will benefit cycling.
  • Infrastructure is an important factor for cycling as well as other activities, so focusing on the built environment remains a big opportunity.
  • Young people become increasingly sedentary as they age. They need to be supported in active pursuits and organized activities. They represent the future.

Inactivity leads too many people to experience lives that are, as Hobbes wrote on an admittedly non-cycling subject, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Strong action is needed to reverse the trend and this needs to be a national priority. The bicycle offers a simple but powerful prescription for what ails so many people. Get on a bike. Pedal. Repeat.

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