While shivering on a train platform in the dead of winter, one Withings employee decided to change up his commute—and it led to a host of life and health benefits. Read on for the full 411.
Sam Archer, pictured, works in our Cambridge, MA, office. He started as a technical training specialist and now runs the show as our HR & Workplace Resources Manager. He’s known for his quick wit and his attention to detail, and he’s now a real-life role model for everyone who aspires to walk the walk in improving their health and wellness. Here’s the story of how he made a work/life habit change that had unexpected benefits.
I didn’t set out to lose weight, improve my cardiovascular health or get abs of steel. I was actually just trying to gain time and some money. This is the story of how one small goal led to one life tweak and snowballed into something that benefited me more than I ever guessed.
It all started waiting in the cold a couple of winters ago. Shivering on the train platform, I thought about how, if I had just decided to ride my bike, I would be warming up and halfway to work already. My train to work took an hour each way, cost nearly five dollars a day, and didn’t save me from having to wait in the cold. I decided to see if biking to work could save me time and money.
The psychological barriers were bigger than the physical ones. I’d been riding a bike since I was a kid. Living in Boston, I didn’t need to get my driver’s license until I was almost 24, and I happily walked, biked, and took public transportation to get to school, jobs, do errands, go to shows and parties. Biking isn’t actually such hard work; it’s much faster than walking, and much much lower-impact than running. But I simply fell out of the habit after a while. I got a job that I could walk to; my wife and I had a kid together, and we sucked it up and got a car so we could go to visit family out in the ‘burbs, get to doctors’ appointments, and drag home furniture and groceries. I no longer had a reason to ride my bike.
Moving to Japan—and getting inspired
Then my wife successfully applied for a Fulbright scholarship, and after five years of an awesome walk-to-work situation, we were off to go live in Japan with our 3-year-old son. Arriving in Fukuoka, we were astonished at the number of bicycle riders. We saw men and women of all ages, many dressed for work, riding on the sidewalks. We bought two well-equipped bicycles for the equivalent of about 300 USD: a single-speed for a lone adult rider, and a “mama-chari” bike with a heavy duty kickstand and child seat. Riding bikes in Japan was so completely different from riding them in Boston. In Japan, it was extremely ordinary. Every grocery store, mall, and train station had bike parking. No one wore helmets or spandex. Men and women rode the same kind of bikes, simple, step-through cruiser bikes, with front baskets, kickstands, lights, and bells. I quickly fell in love with the convenience of biking to shopping and transit destinations, and adopted the easygoing style of Japanese bicyclists.
But when we moved back to Boston, I felt a lot more risk-averse. Boston does not have the nice chill bikestyle of Japan. Bikes are more expensive here, and more vulnerable to theft. Cycling is widely seen as a recreational activity, rather than utilitarian, and bike-riding people are admonished for using the sidewalk. Boston drivers have a notoriously bad reputation, and if you make the mistake of checking the comments section on any local news article about biking, you’ll see that many drivers here see bicyclists as a nuisance. I worried that I wouldn’t be safe biking here, and that co-workers would think it was strange.
A change for the better
Pretty soon, though, the bike bug bit me again, as my son learned to ride without his training wheels. I got a “new” bike (actually a well-cared-for vintage 10-speed) and tried out the route to work. It’s amazing how far biking infrastructure has come since my youth. The city now has miles of bike lanes, some painted bright green, and Boston’s bike-share program BlueBikes (formerly Hubway) has expanded to surrounding communities, too. In the past, I would rarely see another bicyclist on a given trip, but in the last few years, the lanes and paths have become positively crowded with bikes—many with riders obviously wearing work clothes—clearly there’s nothing “strange” about biking to work now. My new commute takes less than 25 minutes one-way, which is easily twice as fast as taking the train. I used the extra time to walk my son to school in the morning, and to get home in time to help with dinner. Five to six hours of extra family time every week is about the best return on investment I can possibly imagine for my modest $280 investment in a used bike.
Cold weather and precipitation were the final frontier. Many a day in the spring and summer of 2017, I looked at my weather app in the morning and got cold feet. Later on, walking back to the station under clear skies, I would regret my decision. By autumn, I was feeling great biking every day, getting my heart going first thing in the morning.
The commute felt less and less like work—I began to look forward to it and to dread those bad-weather days that kept me out of the saddle.
And one day, I finally decided, “Weather be damned, I’m going to take my bike.” I was prepared for bad weather. I had installed the rear rack on my bike and bought a clip-on waterproof pannier bag to keep my laptop safe and dry. I got a pair of high-powered rechargeable lights so I could be visible on the road in darkness. I shelled out for a pair of fenders (and installation—trust me, let the mechanic install your fenders for you) to keep the gunk from the road off of my clothes. And lastly, I got a pair of warm, wind-stopping gloves, to keep my poor fingers from freezing on cold winter days.
I didn’t think of the health benefits at the time. I’ve never been able to motivate myself to go to the gym or go running—the idea of exercising for the sake of exercise has never appealed to me. I don’t even bike for fun—just for utility! But by choosing to bike to work, for the first time I am able to fit in a workout every day, and the effect has been really dramatic. In the winter of 2017–18, I weighed over 200 lbs. Since spring 2018, I’ve lost about 30 lbs. Now my weight is steady, around 170 lbs, but my body fat percentage also dropped from nearly 20% at the high point to around 11% now. Funny how better health could be an unintended side effect of an already life-changing decision.
And biking really did save me time and money—after I did the math, I realized biking every day, versus taking the train every day, saved me 250 hours of commuting and approximately $1250 a year.
So what are you waiting for? Give it a try, and see if bike commuting can make a difference in your life.
Thanks, Sam! Want to learn more? See Sam’s post on top tips to mentally and mechanically prepare yourself for bike commuting.