Julie Doten of Andover relishes her daily walks, an outdoors time when she can soak up the sun or just collect her thoughts.
However, tendinitis has forced her to put her exercise regimen on hold, so now, to fill the void, Doten is out biking — which doesn’t aggravate her joints.
Doten is borrowing a bike through a new program called Wheel Being, a joint venture of Allina Health and Nice Ride, the nonprofit behind the popular bike-share program in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s lending 200 bright orange bikes to people this summer.
In fact, it was the bike’s fiery color that first got Doten’s attention. “That’s what these bikes do,” they make a statement, she said. It helps that the bikes are comfortable and easy to use, said Doten, who also has diabetes.
Ultimately, Wheel Being aims to “bring a healthier lifestyle to participants,” the website says.
The pilot program is available to patients served by Allina clinics in Coon Rapids and Bloomington, said Nice Ride staff member Paul Stucker, who coordinates Wheel Being.
Although patients get to use the bikes for free, they pledge to bike at least a couple of times a week and to join in four group rides this summer, he said. Several group rides are scheduled in conjunction with Tater Daze in Brooklyn Park, the Blaine Farmers Market and Bloomington Heritage Days.
The events give people a chance to socialize with other Wheel Being riders. That’s key, “talking to others in the same boat and learning from each other’s challenges,” Stucker said.
On top of that, “It’s a blast. The line of bright orange bikes becomes its own parade, with people honking and staring. It’s great to watch as they go past,” Stucker said.
He saw that in action last year, when Nice Ride launched the Neighborhood Program. As a part of the program, 140 orange bikes went to north Minneapolis and St. Paul’s East Side and Frogtown neighborhoods. A bunch of community partners helped recruit riders, Stucker said.
This year, the project rolled out 260 bikes. “On a basic level, the program has provided traditionally underserved communities access to high-quality transportation bikes as well as a guided cycling experience over the course of a summer,” Stucker said.
At the end of the season last year, some people reported health benefits. Others praised the program for bringing about a sense of community and family, he said.
Tailored to the suburbs
Wheel Being grew out of that program, he said, adding, “There’s been interest in bringing Nice Ride to the suburbs.” However, the urban bike share, characterized by lime-green bikes, doesn’t translate to those more spread-out areas, he said.
So, Nice Ride teamed up with Allina to come up with an initiative better suited to the suburbs. They found inspiration in national programs like Walk with a Doc and Prescribe-a-Bike in Boston, which provides discounted bike-share subscriptions to low-income people.
The difference here is that “we provide participants with their own bike for the duration of the season. As far as I know, this is new terrain,” Stucker said.
Doctors refer patients to Wheel Being. “The main concept that we wanted to explore, and that Allina was very interested in, is this idea of health initiatives coming out of a conversation with a provider,” he said.
Participants undergo a two-hour orientation that helps them get accustomed to the bikes. The session also covers how the bikes work and traffic safety, Stucker said.
After a test ride, people get to take the bikes home. They also receive helmets, he said.
Depending on how Wheel Being goes this summer, “we’ll look at adding bikes in places in the coming years,” he said.
From what he’s seen, “There’s a great urban bike movement right now and a hunger for it in the suburbs. These are the intrepid explorers.”
Alison Pence, Allina’s west metro community engagement lead, said the hospital has been a major supporter of Nice Ride since its inception. Last year, it helped expand the bike-share program to the park system. It made sense to keep going, she said. “Our intent has always been supporting the health of the community.”
At the same time, “We know there are barriers to people looking to be active. One is that they may not have the equipment or they don’t know how to use it or maintain it,” Pence said.
Also, they may not know where to bike, especially in the suburbs. Some areas aren’t conducive to biking. That’s something that Allina is interested in addressing. “We want to generate interest in bike culture in the suburbs,” she said.
Allina chose Coon Rapids and Bloomington as starting points partly because “those communities have some bike infrastructure, but could use more. … Citizens are biking in those communities, but not a lot.”
Wheel Being, which began recruiting riders in May, is open to any patient who is willing to make the commitment, Pence said.
Michelle Pridemore, who lives in Bloomington, has chronic back pain, and her doctor “knows I’m always trying to do something other than medicine,” she said.
That’s how the biking program came up. Now, she’s trying to push herself to go on longer and longer rides, and she’d even like to tackle a marathon at some point. “It’s on my bucket list now.”
She’s also taking the bike out for errands. “I’m trying to make it a priority,” Pridemore said.
It’s also a good way to get to know the area. Since she moved from Tucson, Ariz., four years ago, she’s glad for the opportunity to meet people, as well. Already, she and a couple of other riders are spurring each other along. “I might say, ‘I went this far today,’ or, ‘I biked in the rain today.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to let that stop me,’ ” she said.
Doten, meanwhile, is starting slow, trying to build her endurance gradually. Soon, she hopes to bike to work. It’s also a good way to explore the trails near her home.
For her, biking is a calming exercise that “gets you away from the hustle and bustle of electronics. … Inside, we’re constantly connected to our phones and computers.” She added: “It relieves stress and anxiety. You can get into your Zen.”
Doten remembers from previous bike-riding experience that “I become more physically fit without realizing it. The joy it brings is greater than the awareness that you’re working out.”
For more about the Wheel Being program, go to www.niceridemn.org/wheelbeing.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.