By Dorene Internicola
NEW YORK (Reuters) - With bike sharing plans rolling on asphalt from New York City to Budapest, experts say city streets are becoming as fitness-friendly as country trails.
Even short cycling jaunts can make a difference in the health of city dwellers.
"If you were driving a car and switched to biking, that 10 minutes going and coming a day would be a big deal," said Dr. Robert Oppliger, an exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine.
Oppliger, an avid cyclist, said even a two-to-three-mile (3.2-to-4.8-km) spin can yield significant health benefits.
"There's a lot of information coming out on something called active transport that compares traveling by bike or public transit to traveling by car," he said. "The benefits are significant the more mobile you are."
Government guidelines recommend adults accumulate 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per week. Cycling, he said, can be part of that.
"Bicycling has positive effects on weight and cardio- vascular health," he said. "Even a couple of times a week is beneficial in terms of all the problems with obesity."
Last week the American Medical Association designated obesity, which affects one third of U.S. adults, a disease.
Not all cities can accommodate bike share programs, which are not designed for avid cyclists, said Oppliger. He said his hometown of Iowa City, a relatively small community with short commuting distances, is unsuited for such a program.
In New York City, which kicked off a massive bike sharing program this spring, 56 percent of auto trips are under three miles, according to the New York City Department of Transportation website.
"For two to three miles it's a pretty good way to get around," said Oppliger, who also praised the city for adding 200 bike lane miles in the past three years alone.
"New York City has done a pretty good job of preparing the area and now it's starting to pay off," he added.
Bicycling magazine's Editor-in-Chief Peter Flax predicts that 10 years from now the decision to introduce bike sharing to New York City will have seemed obvious.
"Maybe more than any other American city, New York is perfectly suited to bike share," said Flax. "It's relatively flat and efficient to get around."
Flax has sampled similar programs in Washington, D.C., Paris and Barcelona.
He readily admits, after watching a parade of New York's big blue bikes riding against the traffic on a one-way street, that the biggest, most ambitious bike share program in North America is in for a period of adjustment.
"We're 25 to 30 years behind Europe," he said. "Our cycling community needs to embrace the rules of the road."
He foresees attitudes changing as the bikes blend into street life.
"In five years it won't be a problem," he predicts. "Taxi drivers are already changing their behavior. The last thing they want is to have an accident with someone on a city bike."
Dani Simons of NYC Bike Share, which controls day-to-day operations, said the goal was simply to make it easier for New Yorkers to get around their city.
So far more 44,780 people have signed up for annual membership in the New York program, which is similar in concept to bike shares in Paris, London and Boston, the website Citibikenyc.com.
"We are really, really pleased," said Simons, adding email requests are flooding in from New Yorkers who live in parts of the city not served by the program.
New York-based fitness expert Liz Neporent, author of "Fitness for Dummies," applauds the program.
"The bikes are getting used a lot. I'm all for anything that gets people moving," she said, adding that cycling gets hearts and lungs into shape and exercises muscles without stressing the joints.
"Every little bit adds up," she said. "Riding a bike beats grabbing a cab or sitting your butt down in the subway."
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Eric Walsh)