As a keen cyclist, I’ve long felt there are significant benefits of riding to work, both in terms of physical and mental wellbeing. That was the finding of a recent study published in the British Medical Journal. The study looked at the impact ‘active commuting’ has on our health.
They define active commuting as the ability to get some exercise in whilst traveling to and from work, so usually this will consist of cycling, walking or running. The authors analyzed over 250,000 people with an average age of 53 who were in employment. They were quizzed on how they usually get to work.
The answers were then grouped into five categories, ranging from non-active to fully active. Each participant was tracked over a five year timeframe, whereby incidences of heart disease, cancers and death were recorded. What’s more, each individual was adjusted for their age, sex, poverty levels and so on to try and provide a clear view of the impact their commute was having on their health.
Cycling to better health
When the data was analyzed, it revealed that cycling to work was associated with a 41% lower risk of dying overall compared to commuting by car or public transport. Cycle commuters had a 52% lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40% lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had 46% lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45% lower risk of developing cancer at all.
What’s more, these benefits increased the further we cycle each week, although even those who cycle part of the way, or mix cycling with public transport, still saw significant health benefits.
Interestingly, whilst walking did have a benefit, it was not associated with a lower risk of dying from all causes, with the authors suggesting this is due to the shorter duration and lower intensity of walking compared to cycling.
This is great to hear, but there is a but attached. In the UK, just 3% of people cycle to work daily, which is one of the lowest rates in Europe. What's more, there is also a considerable slump during the day. In other words, whilst we might cycle to work, we seldom cycle during work. If we have meetings etc. we seldom travel to them on a bike.
It's something that folding bike manufacturer Brompton are determined to fix. They've recently released a new electric bike with the intention of making cycling attractive to those who might not ordinarily cycle. On a recent test drive around London, it was certainly a smooth ride, with the electric motor kicking in when you needed an extra boost, such as when pulling away from traffic lights. The suspension also provided a more forgiving ride than my road bike does.
Getting employees cycling
The company are hoping to attract corporate clients who want to provide staff with a better way of traveling whilst at work. They've signed deals with around 50 major employers, including HSBC and PWC, to ensure staff have access to the folding bicycles should they wish to use them to get around from meeting to meeting.
Whilst at the time of writing there isn't any hard data on how employees are utilizing the bicycles at work, from an employers perspective it's something that makes eminent sense. For instance, Swedish research from 2011 highlighted how cycling makes people less stressed at work.
"Generally car and public transport users suffered more everyday stress, poorer sleep quality, exhaustion and, on a seven point scale, felt that they struggled with their health compared to the active commuters," they said.
It's also a positive behavior that can easily spread. For instance, a 2013 study highlighted the contagiousness of cycling in a workplace.
“Social influences are important, specifically interpersonal influences, such as spouses and co-workers,” the authors said.
In addition to looking at the viral nature of cycling, the study also explored the kinds of people that ride in each day. It found some fascinating trends. For instance married people are more likely to cycle to work than single people.
Interestingly, if you have a spouse that cycles to work, or even colleagues that cycle in, you are much more likely to do so yourself.
Negative influences on cycling behaviors
A number of factors were found to contribute to someone choosing to not cycle to work, including:
- Body mass index
- Number of children
- Number of cars in the household
The report also found a number of positive influencers. For instance, living in a community that supports cycling to work has a big impact, as does working for an employer that is supportive. People were also more likely to ride in if they were confident in their cycling skills.
Despite the huge boom in cycling in London, there's clearly much more that can be done, especially during office hours rather than traditional commuting times. I suspect the price of the e-brompton might prove a sticking point in their crossing the chasm, but any extra cyclists on the road has to be a good thing.