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Good news for cyclists: You might live longer
24 Apr 2017

A recent study published in The BMJ finds that cycling or walking to work reduces the risk of death from all causes, when compared with non-active commuting. The biggest effect was seen in cyclists, so it might be time to get your bike back out of the garage.

It will come as no surprise that being more physically active has health benefits when compared with a more sedentary lifestyle.

It therefore follows that using a more active method of transport to get to work might also have health benefits. However, the exact size of the positive effect has been a subject of much debate.
 
Earlier research has faced criticisms. For instance, some studies failed to differentiate between walking and cycling to work, while others failed to properly adjust for confounding variables.
 
To help put this question to bed, a group of scientists from the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom set out to gather more detail in a large-scale study.
 
Specifically, they looked at the association between active commuting and cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, and all-cause mortality.
 
Delving into data from the UK Biobank (a database of biological information from more than 500,000 U.K. adults), they used details from 264,377 participants, with an average age of 53.
 
Information about their daily commutes was collated - walking, cycling, non-active methods (such as driving or public transport), and mixed transport (for example, cycling to catch a train). These individuals were then followed-up for an average of 5 years. Hospital admissions and deaths were recorded.
 
The benefits of pedal power
Once the analysis had been adjusted for influential factors - including smoking, sex, age, occupation, and diet - they found that walking to work was associated with a reduction in risk of CVD and mortality. Cycling faired even better, having the lowest risk of these outcomes as well as producing a lower risk of cancer and all-cause mortality.
 
For individuals who combined different transport methods to get to work - therefore using a combination of active and non-active transport - there were also significant benefits, but only if cycling was one of the types of transport involved. Also, the CVD benefits for walking commuters was only significant if they covered more than 6 miles per week (roughly 2 hours of walking at a pace of 3 miles per hour).
 
It is important to note that this is just an observational study, so cause and effect can not be distinguished. The authors also note that there are other limitations that could have introduced some bias to the data. One of these is the fact that although the UK Biobank is a representative sample for characteristics including age and ethnicity, it may not be representative for other factors, such as obesity and comorbidity.
 
However, the researchers conclude that "the findings, if causal, suggest population health may be improved by policies that increase active commuting, particularly cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes, cycle hire, or purchase schemes, and better provision for cycles on public transport."
 
The article is linked with an editorial written by Prof. Lars Bo Andersen from the Western Norwegian University of Applied Sciences. In it, he writes that choosing an active commuting method could reduce the national cost of CVD (more than $320 billion per year in the United States) and save a great number of lives.
 
Bo Andersen explains how the benefits of active commuting could be wide-reaching:
 
"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 centers and help reduce air pollution, with further benefits for health."
 
The conclusions drawn by both the researchers and the author of the editorial will come as no surprise.

Exercise is good for you - it is time to get back in the saddle.