A study of more than a quarter of a million people across the UK has found that cycling to work slashes the risk of contracting heart disease and cancer. An editorial in the BMJ, which published the study, says its findings “are a clear call for political action on active commuting.”
Researchers from the University of Glasgow found that compared to people who commuted by car or on public transport, regular commuter cyclists were 41 per cent less likely to die from any cause.
But the results were even more startling when it came to cancer and heart disease, with cyclists respectively 45 per cent and 46 per cent less likely to die from those causes.
Benefits, albeit much less pronounced, were also found among people who walked to work, or who combined walking or cycling with public transport.
On average, participants who cycled to work rode 30 miles a week – but researchers found that the greater the weekly distance ridden, the higher the impact on health.
One of the academics involved in the study, Dr Jason Gill, told BBC News that while going to the gym to keep fit needs discipline, riding a bike to work becomes a more natural part of the daily routine.
"This is really clear evidence that people who commute in an active way, particularly by cycling, were at lower risk,” he said
"You need to get to work every day so if you built cycling into the day it essentially takes willpower out of the equation.
"What we really need to do is change our infrastructure to make it easier to cycle - we need bike lanes, to make it easier to put bikes on trains, showers at work."
The study is the largest ever undertaken into the issue, with 263,450 participants.
During the five-year period, 2,430 participants died, 496 of them from heart disease and 1,126 from cancer. In all, 3,748 people who took part in the study were diagnosed with cancer and 1,110 with heart disease.
While the methodology employed means researchers are unable to establish clear cause and effect, they said the benefits of cycle commuting were still apparent once results had been adjusted for issues such as diet, smoking, or the subject’s weight.
The findings tie in with previous research which has clearly established the health benefits of commuting by bike.
Commuting by bike has also been found to result in a happier - and more productive - workforce.
The way the study was carried out means it is not possible to determine a clear cause and effect.
However, the effect was still there even after adjusting the statistics to remove the effects of other potential explanations like smoking, diet or how heavy people are.
In an editorial in the BMJ related to the study, Professor Lars Bo Andersen of the Western Norwegian University of Applied Sciences in Bergen said: “The UK has neglected to build infrastructure to promote cycling for decades and the potential for improvements to increase cycling and the safety of cycling is huge.
“Cities such as Copenhagen have prioritised cycling by building bike lanes; tunnels for bikes, so cyclists do not need to pass heavy traffic; and bridges over the harbour to shorten travel time for pedestrians and cyclists. Today, no car or bus can travel faster than a bike through Copenhagen.”
He continued: “It will take decades to change commuter culture in the UK, but it is possible, and changes in commuter behaviour can occur quickly when active travel is seen as both safe and convenient.
“The findings from this study are a clear call for political action on active commuting, which has the potential to improve public health by preventing common (and costly) non-communicable diseases.
“A shift from car to more active modes of travel will also decrease traffic in congested city centres and help reduce air pollution, with further benefits for health,” Professor Andersen concluded.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.