Commuting by bike can cut cancer risk by half

Regular cycling linked to decrease in heart disease and cancer risk

Cyclists in San Francisco on National Bike To Work Day

Researchers at the University of Glasgow have announced the results of a huge study that demonstrates that commuting by bike could cut your risk of cancer or heart disease by almost half.


The study, which looked at over 250,000 individual commuters and was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, took place over five years and was focussed on comparing the impacts of an ‘active commute’ – walking or cycling – compared to a more sedentary method such as driving or taking public transport.

The researchers concluded that cycling regularly reduced the incidence of cancer in the study group by 45%, heart disease by 46% and of death by any cause by 41%. While walking also decreased the risk of cancer and heart disease, the effects weren’t as pronounced as with cycling.

Correcting for variables

The research team based at the University of Glasgow corrected for other factors such as age, gender, income, and factors such as whether or not the people studied smoked, drank or were overweight. All of these factors can affect the outcome, and the research team also took into account elements like whether or not regular cyclists were likely to have healthier lifestyles all round.

If cycling were a pill, we’d all be taking it

Even taking these factors into account, the research indicates that there is a hugely positive benefit to cycling.

“This is really clear evidence that people who commute in an active way, particularly by cycling, were at lower risk” commented Dr Jason Gill, part of the research team, to the BBC News website.

Change the way we commute

As you’d expect, the research has prompted calls from organisations such as British Cycling and Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, to increase funding and support for cycling infrastructure, to encourage more people to get on bikes. But it’s not just cycling advocacy groups that are calling for change.

Groups such as Cancer Research UK have also welcomed the conclusions, and support calls to get more people cycling.

All the conditions mentioned kill thousands upon thousands of people in the UK (and elsewhere) every year. Treating these diseases costs the National Health Service millions. And here we have something relatively simple that could save lives.

If cycling were a pill, we’d all be taking it.

Of course, the picture is more complicated than that. For more people to cycle, there needs to be serious work done on all fronts to make it safe, more attractive, more affordable.

This is something the researchers themselves noted, commenting that “the findings, if causal, suggest population health may be improved by policies that increase active commuting, particularly cycling, [including] the creation of cycle lanes, cycle hire or purchase schemes, and better provision for cycles on public transport.”

Distance travelled is also a factor. The average distance traveled by bike of those studied was 30 miles over the course of a week, with the health benefits increasing the greater the distance ridden.

As of 2011, the average distance commuted in UK is 9 miles, and was increasing steadily. Distances commuted within cities is typically less, making cycling a viable option. In more rural areas, the greater commute distances can make cycling less viable as a mode of transport.

Easy to build into your routine

While cycling will never be for everyone, it is an excellent form of exercise for so many reasons: it’s efficient, it’s quick, it’s relatively low impact on the body compared to running, it can be a form of transport, it requires little specialist equipment, it’s better for the environment than cars, you don’t need to be very fit to get started, and if done regularly the health benefits are seen quickly. In fact, we’ve found 30 great benefits of cycling, and we’re thinking of more all the time.

One of these benefits in particular – the fact that cycling, as opposed to going to the gym, for example – is a form of transport makes it a particularly good choice when it comes to increasing the health of the nation.

Unlike going to the gym, which requires time and effort over and above the working day, once a cycle commute has become routine, it requires little additional willpower. This is one of the particular advantages of cycling over alternatives.

And of course, there are many other benefits over and above the physical, with time outside and regular exercise having been shown to be beneficial to mental health, too.

Get on your bike

Want to get started in cycling, or help someone else take up a regular cycle commute? BikeRadar is here to help! From selecting the right bike to commute with to getting the essential commuter equipment, we’ve got loads of guides, hints and tips to get you going.