Saddle up if you want to live a much longer and healthier life
CYCLING to work slashes the risk of cancer, heart problems or dying early by almost half, British research has revealed.
Adults who commute by bike are 45% less likely to get cancer and 46% less susceptible to heart disease. Their risk of dying prematurely from any cause is 41% lower – despite the dangers of cycling on roads. The study of a quarter-of-a-million adults showed that biking even short distances was far more beneficial than walking or using public transport.
Scientists in Glasgow, Scotland, who are behind the findings are calling for a “step change” in policy – including building more cycle lanes – to prevent long-term illnesses.
Only about 7% of British adults regularly cycle to work and just 4% do it every day. Many are put off by heavy traffic, the weather or not being able to shower at the office.
Although cycling has obvious health benefits, this study is the first to show how it compares to walking or taking the bus.
The researchers, whose findings are published in the BMJ, a medical journal, studied the commuting habits of 263 450 middle-aged men and women. They assessed their health for five years and recorded whether they developed cancer, heart disease or died of any cause.
Adults who walked to work – typically 10km a week – were 27% less likely to develop heart disease than those who drove or took public transport.
But walking did not protect them against cancer or other chronic health problems – possibly because they were not exercising for long enough.
Adults who cycled to work for any distance were more than 40% less likely to get cancer, heart disease or die within the next five years.
Dr Jason Gill, of the Glasgow University Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, said: “Cycling all or part of the way to work was associated with substantially lower risk of adverse health.
“If these associations are causal, they suggest that policies to make it easier to commute by bike – such as cycle lanes, city bike hire or subsidised cycle purchase schemes – may present major opportunities for public health improvement.
“What we need now is a step change in the way we develop transport systems like we have seen in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where cycling is normal and cities are built around it.
“It is the biggest study into modes of commuting and their health effects than all the previous ones put together and shows conclusively that cycling to work reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease.”
Co-author of the study, Dr Carlos Celis-Morales, said cycling may be more beneficial than walking because cyclists tend to travel further. He added that “walking is generally a lower intensity exercise”.
NHS figures last month showed a quarter of adults are inactive, meaning they don’t even manage 30 minutes of brisk walking or cycling a week.
Clare Hyde, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer, said: “Physical activity helps to reduce the risk of cancer and, while the researchers are cautious about concluding too much about their results, this study helps to highlight the potential benefits of building activity into your everyday life.
“Anything that gets you a bit hot and out of breath can help make a difference.”
Despite the health boost from cycling regularly, there are fears that exposure to traffic fumes could reduce the benefits. Frequently breathing in diesel pollution causes irritation to the nose and eyes, as well as fatigue and breathlessness.
The World Health Organisation has labelled diesel fumes a “definite carcinogen”.
In 2011, scientists at the University of Edinburgh found the tiny particles impaired circulation to the heart. This means they may worsen pre-existing heart conditions or even cause them to develop in previously healthy adults.
Although petrol fumes also damage our health, diesel is far more harmful because it contains higher volumes of the toxic gas nitrous oxide.
Concerns over vehicle emissions are leading British cities to bring in ever-tighter traffic restrictions.
Anything that gets you sweaty can make a difference