According to the Heart Foundation, more than 54% of West Australian adults are overweight or obese in 2009 and the proportion almost doubled from one in 10 to one in five people from 1995 to 2008. Western Australia enforced mandatory bicycle helmet laws in 1992. The National Preventative Health Taskforce estimates that from 1990 to 2005, the number of overweight or obese Australians rose by 2.8 million to affect more than half the population. Curtin University professor of health policy Mike Daube believes obesity will prematurely kill half a million Australians by 2050 if left unchecked.
Obesity is linked to various ailments including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and reduced quality/duration of life.
The Australian Medical Association estimates as many as 17,000 Australians die each year from causes attributable to obesity and calculates that "overweight and obesity are now more prevalent risk factors for disease than smoking" (see Australian Medical Journal, April 2005).
Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia published in 2008 by the Journal of Physical Activity and Health spotlights the clear link between cycling activity and reduced obesity. The chart below shows that the three most obese countries in the world, the US, Australia and Canada, have either mandatory child or adult bicycle helmet laws:
Active travel and adult obesity published in 2009 by Sustrans in the UK provides further evidence linking active cycling with improved mortality.
In May 2006, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council warned that about 100,000 people each year (275 per day) are developing diabetes in Australia, doubling their chance of dying over the next five years. Research published in June 2008 by St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne predicts that as many as 30,000 people in Western Australia with type 2 diabetes will die within 10 years. About 700,000 Australians have diabetes and the disease is expected to kill about a third in the next decade. Exercise is one of the best ways to prevent diabetes. Canberra is urging Australians to undertake moderate exercise, but Australia is one of only two countries in the world that punishes its citizens of all ages for cycling exercise without a helmet.
The Australian Bicycle Council, a subsidiary of the Australian Government's Department of Transport, stated in its March 2004 communique:
Bicycling is part of the solution to many of our cities (sic) problems: the obesity epidemic, traffic congestion, air pollution and more. The mainstream health message these days is that people need to do at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days, to maintain health. Increased incidental exercise (ie exercise that is built into 'activities of daily living') is often recommended as the best way to ensure adequate daily levels of exercise are achieved. This is because this kind of exercise is often 'maintained' (ie kept up) more consistently than, for example going to the gym or playing sport. Walking and cycling to work are two good forms of incidental exercise - no surprise there!
The Council has also issued a paper in April 2005 outlining the health and other benefits of cycling.
A 1996 Western Australia government media release states that more than half of Western Australia's children had stopped riding bicycles to school within five years of helmet law enforcement.
The West Australian Government's Child and Adolescent Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey shows the number of overweight and obese children in WA rose from 9% of boys and 10.6% of girls in 1985 to 21.7% of boys and 27.8% of girls in 2003.
This website does not claim that Australia's obesity crisis is caused by helmet laws and their consequent reduction in cycling popularity.
However, it certainly doesn't help to discourage cycling when the medical profession recommends cycling to improve fitness and lose weight.
You cannot convince people to enjoy society's most popular form of recreational exercise, cycling, if they risk being punished for not wearing a helmet when it's 35-40 degrees Celsius - typical summer heat in Australia.
March 21, 2012: Australian children are among the most ''cosseted'' and ''chauffeured'' in the world with a study showing more than 60% are driven to and from school and the numbers who walk, cycle and take public transport are falling to new lows.
Read the Dublin Cycling Campaign Submission to The National Task Force on Obesity.
For an overview of the health benefits of cycling, read this 2005 Denmark study (PDF 276kb). For an amusing Danish view of the helmet debate, click here.
See our home page for data on Western Australia's reduction in cyclist numbers following helmet law enforcement, as well as overwhelming evidence that the mandatory wearing of helmets has nevertheless worsened cyclist body and head injury rates.
For further press clippings illustrating Australia's sedentary health crisis, click here