Winning combination: Bike commuting is healthy, stress-relieving alternative

Because of her background in nursing, Theresa Stergios said that staying healthy played a large part in changing the way she moves around. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Theresa Stergios has been commuting sustainably in Missoula for the past 30 years, thanks to a little bit of planning and a big desire to stay healthy.

She can be seen biking through town to work, to the store and on trails – come rain or sunshine.

To stay dry on her way to work, she wears a raincoat and waterproof pants, accented with neoprene boots to keep the water out of her shoes.

Her black and yellow Scott mountain bike is proudly equipped with a pressurized air horn, handy for busy traffic commuting.

Her dream is to invent a gadget that helps bikers signal their turns, but that’s after retirement, she said.

Stergios uses sustainable transportation for more than 50 percent of her commuting. If her journey is less than two miles, she walks or rides her bike.

That dedication made Stergios one of three people who received a Missoula in Motion Lifetime Achievement award last week during its Commuter of the Year awards ceremony in Caras Park. The new award. recognizes local residents who use sustainable transportation for a majority of their travels.

Jim Nugent and Rohanna Erin received the Commuter of the Year award, while Stergios, Brendan Moles, who is the housing services coordinator for Homeword, and Don Verrue, who is the assistant director for Missoula Development Services, received the Lifetime Achievement awards.

Missoula in Motion program specialist Katherine Auge hopes to honor more people with a lifetime achievement award in the future.

“It was kind of unique, and we thought they all deserved recognition,” she said.

Missoula in Motion also hosts the annual Commuter Challenge, a competition where businesses compete to see who can get the most employees or team members to commute sustainably during a two-week period. This year, 97 local employers participated.

When Stergios worked for Community Bridges at Community Medical Center as a registered nurse caring for brain injury patients, she was captain of the Commuter Challenge team for more than 10 years.

Now working for Home and Community Based Services, a Medicaid Waiver program, she enrolled the entire hospital in the challenge this year, and they won the most improved team award.

She encouraged her coworkers to commute sustainably, often forming a “commuter train” in the early mornings when she would ride with coworkers to work.

“I’m just surprised how many people could be commuting who never consider it because they’re so in the habit of jumping in their car. It takes that someone to say ‘is there another alternative?’ ” Stergios said.

In her new job, Stergios finds herself biking or carpooling to provide patients with in-home services 10 to 20 times a week.

These homes often range from Missoula neighborhoods to Bonner and Ravalli County.

“It’s always a little bit of a juggling act,” Stergios said. “With commuting in general, you just have to make that commitment to think about it.”

She says that biking allows for route flexibility and reduces the stress of driving in traffic. And it allows her to feel energized for her work day.

“We all drive,” she said. “We’re all not made of sugar. But it feels so good to get your workout in or at least part of your workout in for the day. It just starts your mind in the right way. It makes me more open to be able to be present and do my job.”

Theresa Stergios and her Commuter Challenge team from Community Medical Center. (Courtesy photo)

Because of her background in nursing, Stergios said that staying healthy played a large part in changing the way she moves around. More and more people are being diagnosed with diabetes at an earlier age, but it’s a problem that can be prevented, she said.

“I really feel that we are all responsible for our own health. We suffer the consequences for our own choices,” she said. “I want to do what I can to take care of myself. And that’s really how it started, with that interest in health and maintenance.”

She’s a major advocate of cyclists wearing helmets because of her knowledge of brain injuries, and she’s taught her children that there is more to commuting than just driving a car. She believes that today’s generation is making the commitment to sustainable transportation.

Her son, who hasn’t driven a car in seven years, rides his bike everywhere he goes. Her daughter hopes to own only one car for her family while living in Minneapolis, Minn.

Stergios plans to start a new job next month, knowing she’ll be encouraging her coworkers to think about their commuting habits every day. She wants to apply for a mini-grant from Missoula in Motion to develop a locked shed where employees can safely leave their bikes during the day.

When she isn’t biking, Stergios grows strawberries, plums and blueberries in her front and back yards and practices yoga and tai chi. Her husband, Matt Stergios, said she’s always active.

He said that she was wired to teach people about using other forms of transportation. She taught her three younger brothers how to ride their bikes as youngsters, and he knows how successful she is at initiating change.

“She’s never been very upfront. She just shows you how to do it without trying to get in your face about it. I think that’s why she is so effective,” Matt Stergios said. “She’s willing to go that extra mile, or marathon, whatever it takes to make that person change their thinking.”