Cycling and Health

Introduction

It has been recognised for some time that cycling can make an important contribution to public health. The seminal work was by Mayer Hillman, whose research was published by the British Medical Association in 1992, as “Cycling: Towards Health and Safety”. He concluded that the years gained by the health benefits of cycling were 20 times greater than the years lost due to traffic crashes. This startling result appeared at a time when there was very little understanding of risk in cycling. A number of other such studies have returned similar results for different countries. These were recently reviewed. The full study is behind a paywall (privatised science), but the abstract is in public view. In addition, some of the results are available in the public domain from a presentation at a workshop of the International Transport Forum. I have reproduced a slide from it here (use the zoom facility):

Health Benefits of Cycling

The 2004 Report of the Commons Health Committee on Obesity concluded: If the government were to achieve its target of trebling cycle use in the period 2000-2010, that might achieve more in the fight against obesity than any other individual measure.

The UK government did not achieve the target, nor come close to it. An exasperating aspect of UK cycling policies has been the re-setting of targets as existing ones were missed.

An online tool called the Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT) has been developed to assist traffic engineers and transport planners in cost-benefit analyses of cycling proposals. More information on how it works can be found at the HEAT web site here.

Further conclusions come from the UK government Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy:

Physical activity helps to prevent and manage more than 20 chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia, obesity and a variety of cancers. It is also linked to overall health benefits, such as reduced injury risk, improved quality of life, increased productivity and reduced absenteeism at work.

Whereas:

Physical inactivity directly contributes to one in six deaths in the UK and costs business and wider society £7.4 billion a year. Physical inactivity is among the top ten causes of disease and disability in England.

The consequences of not taking enough exercise are substantial for the individual and for society. In 2014, the Chief Executive of NHS England warned that obesity will bankrupt the NHS if the problem is not checked.

The text below summarises the comprehensive 2009 Cycling England review of the health benefits of cycling. You can read the full report here .

The Health Benefits

Cycling is an easy and low-impact activity which can significantly improve individual fitness and which has the potential to have a major impact on public health. It can help to reduce the risk of a range of health problems, notably heart disease and cancer, the leading preventable causes of premature death.

In a country like the UK, where obesity is at epidemic levels among adults and young people, one of the main benefits of cycling is that people can do it as part of their normal daily activity – by cycling to work, to see friends or to the shops – rather than having to find additional time for exercise.

(Photo by Ranasinha/Pixabay)

One study found that people who cycle to work experienced a 39% lower rate of all-cause mortality compared to those who did not – even after adjustment for other risk factors, including leisure time physical activity. Getting on your bike can yield much the same health benefits as doing a specific training programme. Cycling for an additional 30 minutes on most days of the week, combined with reducing calorie intake, can achieve weight loss comparable to that achieved by doing three aerobic classes a week.

As well as improving physical health, cycling has a positive affect on emotional health – improving levels of well-being, self-confidence and tolerance to stress while reducing tiredness, difficulties with sleep and a range of medical symptoms.

Safety

One of the barriers to taking up cycling  is a perception of the physical danger posed  by motor traffic. However, the actual risks are much less than commonly perceived, as discussed in more detail here. In addition, the research suggests that the risks are outweighed by the health benefits by a factor  of around twenty to one.

Conclusion

It’s vital for the health of the nation – and the health of the planet – that health and transport professionals focus on positive actions to encourage cycling, especially where a cycle journey will replace a car journey.

Local transport and health authorities need to recognise the potential of cycling to improve many aspects of public health, and place it at the heart of a healthy transport strategy, devising safe cycling policies and promoting the use of cycling – by children and adults alike – on a daily basis.