Biking, The Netherlands, & Weight Control

(Originally published Sep. 26, 2007).

My husband and I are still jet-lagged from our four-week vacation — ten days in the southern Netherlands (Holland) on a Bike and Barge holiday, followed by two and a half weeks in the Loire Valley where we explored villages and chateaux, pigged out on French food, sampled French wine, and biked again for four days.

The day after our return, I stepped on the scales, palms sweaty and expecting the worst. To my awe and unbounded delight, I HAD ONLY GAINED THREE POUNDS! Well, maybe three and a half, but I figure the extra half pound doesn’t count because it’s only water retention from the flight.

Goes to show that rigorous exercise really does the trick.

If you ever visit Holland (an experience I highly recommend) you will notice that there are no overweight Dutch people. None. Nada. I speak with some authority on this touchy topic because my husband and I searched high and low on our futile quest to find fat folk in Holland. It became a sick kind of game. I would nudge my husband and jerk my head in the direction of my quarry. “Look. Over there, in the bakery, wedged against the pastry display,” I’d say, or, “Bulky butt sighting at three o’clock.” After several minutes of studying and ruminating, he would sigh and mutter, “Not a chance. Look at that camera. That’s a tourist.”

After ten days of intensive scientific study, I grew to believe that biking, not genetics, is the reason the Dutch are so slim and trim. Here’s the thing. In Holland, every able-bodied man, woman, and child between the ages of six and ninety-six simply hops on a bike and zips to work, or school, or store, or restaurant, or wherever.

Holland is a bicycle-friendly country. Perhaps it’s because the cities and towns are older and more compact, originally built for pedestrians instead of vehicles. Perhaps it’s because the country is small and flat, or because dykes alongside canals make perfect bicycle paths, or because city streets are too narrow for cars, or because the weather is more accommodating.

Whatever the reasons, in the Netherlands, bicycles rule. Cycling paths criss-cross the country. Trails are well-marked. Even better, accurate and detailed trail maps abound. Bicycles are a tried and true means of transportation. Drivers are courteous, willing to share the road with swarms of avid cyclists. Even at rush hour, vehicular traffic is light, while thousands of cyclists hit the pavement and head for home. Note to the unwary traveller: Do not wander out on the bicycle lane as if it were a sidewalk.

We in North America could learn a few tricks from the Dutch when it comes to physical fitness. If only our biking facilities were as numerous, safe, and well marked as those in the Netherlands and drivers as accepting, I believe more people would head for the trails instead of their cars.