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Commuting by bike linked to fewer deaths

Cycling to work could mean 41% lower risk of premature death

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 20 April 2017

People who cycle or walk to work appear to enjoy substantial health benefits and could be far less likely to die from cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD), suggests a study* published today in The BMJ.

Governments, therefore, should do all they can to encourage active commuting, said the UK study’s authors.

Previous studies have shown that cycling and walking are linked with health benefits, but there is still debate about the strength of these associations.

Therefore, researchers at the University of Glasgow set out to investigate the association between active commuting and incident CVD, cancer, and all-cause mortality.

They studied 264,377 participants (average age 53 years) recruited from the UK Biobank - a database of biological information from half a million British adults.

Participants were asked to record the types of transport they used to get to and from work on a typical day with options including walking, cycling and non-active (car or public transport).

Information on hospital admissions and deaths was recorded during an average five-year follow-up period.

During the five years, 2,430 participants died – 496 were related to CVD and 1,126 to cancer – while there were 3,748 cancer and 1,110 CVD events.

After taking into account several influential factors, the researchers found that cycling to work was associated with a 45% lower risk of developing cancer and a 46% lower risk of heart disease, compared to a non-active commute.

Overall, the study found that commuters who cycled were associated with a 41% lower risk of premature death.

Walking was also beneficial but not to the same extent. Walking to work was associated with a 27% lower risk of developing CVD and a 36% lower risk of dying from CVD, but not associated with cancer or premature death overall.

Furthermore, a lower risk for CVD incidence was only evident among the walking commuters who covered more than six miles a week – the equivalent to two hours of weekly commuting by walking at a typical pace of three miles an hour.

The researchers said this was an observational study, so no firm conclusions could be drawn about cause and effect.

However, one of the authors Dr Jason Gill from the university’s 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 outcomes.

“If these associations are causal, these findings suggest that policies designed to make it easier for people to commute by bike, such as cycle lanes, city bike hire, subsidised cycle purchase schemes and increasing provision for cycles on public transport may present major opportunities for public health improvement.”

In a linked editorial,** Professor Lars Bo Andersen at the Western Norwegian University of Applied Sciences, said active commuting had the potential to substantially reduce the costs of heart disease (estimated at £15 billion each year in the UK) and to save many lives.

“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,” he said.

* Celis-Morales CA, Lyall DM, Welsh P, et al. Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2017;357:j1456. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1456

** Andersen LB. Active commuting is beneficial for health. BMJ 2017;357:j1740. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1740

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