Study: Biking to work lowers risks of cancer and heart disease

Almost 35 million Europeans use bicyles as their main mode of transport. [Nelson L./Flickr]

Riding a bicycle to work reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer, according to a new UK study carried out by Glasgow researchers.

The study followed 260,000 UK citizens over five years. Researchers found that those who regularly commute by bicycle reduce their risk of developing cancer by 45%, heart disease by 46%, and risk of death from any cause by 41%.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, also noted that “active commuting”, meaning cycling or walking to work, is a recommended way to work exercise into one’s daily routine because it is easier than going to the gym.

“You need to get to work every day so if you built cycling into the day it essentially takes willpower out of the equation,” Dr. Jason Gill of the University of Glasgow told the BBC News website.

“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,” he added.

The cyclists studied averaged 30 miles a week, but their health benefits increased the more miles they biked.

Walking to work was also associated with a lower risk of heart disease, but mostly for people who walked more than six miles per week. People who combined cycling with public transport also showed health benefits.

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According to the study, even after adjusting for other potential impacts on health such as smoking, diet, and weight, there were still clear benefits of an active commute.

Possible explanations include cyclists being leaner overall and lower levels of inflammation in the body.

“This study helps to highlight the potential benefits of building activity into your everyday life,” Clare Hyde of Cancer Research UK said.

What is happening in the EU

The European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) welcomed the report, saying that the 35 million Europeans using the bike as their main mode of transport enjoy on average longer and healthier lives as well as better mental health due to physical activity and related benefits.

“In addition to being a key to escape the urban transport from congestion and air pollution, cycling also translates into reduced work absenteeism, it improves children’s health, and brings great benefits concerning development and well-being,” ECF’s advocacy director Adam Bodor told EURACTIV.com.

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The World Health Organisation has created a tool to measure these benefits in economic terms. It’s designed to help people conduct an economic assessment of the health benefits of walking or cycling.

In the case of cycling, the HEAT tool estimates that it currently prevents 27,860 premature deaths annually due to physical activity along with an economic savings of €96.5 billion.

Toward an EU cycling strategy

Current cycling levels within EU member states vary significantly. According to the ECF’s cycling barometer, Scandinavian and northern European countries top the list while Mediterranean countries lag behind.

Denmark and the Netherlands rank first, while Portugal and Romania marked the worst performance.

According to Bodor, together with a group of transport stakeholders, the ECF is developing a “blueprint for an EU cycling strategy” that will be handed over to European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport Violeta Bulc at the Velo-city 2017 conference in June.

“The EU cycling strategy encompasses various matters such as creating jobs, easing congestion, reducing the number of fatal road accidents, improving public health and environment, tackling climate change”, he noted, emphasising that cycling benefits are widespread over several domains.

“From the best practices exchange on infrastructures, and vehicles design to the extensive inclusion of cycling in urban transport guidelines and data collection, the EU has the power to enforce and disseminate the growth of cycle use in our cities,” he concluded.

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