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Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Boston Doctors Fight Obesity with Prescribe-a-Bike Program


A bike ride a day might in fact keep the doctor away. In a new move to help reduce obesity in low-income neighborhoods, doctors in Boston are writing bike share prescriptions as an alternative to traditional medication. The city’s bike share program, Hubway, runs at an $85 annual membership. Now, with doctor’s orders, lower-income riders can peddle their way to better health for only five bucks.

Behind the innovative model is the Boston Medical Center that partnered with Hubway to launch the program that will offer both low-cost rides and free helmets for qualifying participants. Surrounding medical centers are also looking at adopting the model in which a doctor would write a letter prescribing the program to interested participants.

Boston’s obesity rates mirror that of the nation’s current health crisis, where campaigns urging children and adults to get active become more ubiquitous each day. Last summer, New York City even rolled out a program that allowed doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables to obese or overweight patients. In that program, patients receive cash in the form of Health Bucks for use at their local farmers market.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in four Boston residents is obese. These numbers are dismal for Black (32 percent) and Hispanic (30 percent) residents, who make up 40 percent of the population with obesity rates twice that of Caucasian adults.

"Obesity is a significant and growing health concern for our city, particularly among low-income Boston residents," explained Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center, to the Atlantic Cities. "Regular exercise is key to combating this trend, and Prescribe-a-Bike is one important way our caregivers can help patients get the exercise they need to be healthy."

A dismal 14 percent of Hubway bike share stations exist in low-income communities. Local officials are hoping to attract an additional 1,000 members to the bike share through the new program and thus increase dock stations where visibility is minimal.

To qualify for the subsidized program, participants must be 16 years or older, be enrolled in some form of public assistance or have a household income that does not exceed four times the poverty level. The required credit check is also waived for participants.

While cities like New York, Miami Beach, Denver, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. boast bike share programs of their own, Boston’s subsidized model establishes precedent for a new trend that encourages cities to begin thinking strategically about equitable investment in lower income communities while encouraging actionable behavior that positively cuts down on congestion, air pollution and obesity-related diseases.

Image courtesy of Hubway Facebook Page

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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