How cycling to work could save thousands of lives a year

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It looks like cycling really is the healthiest way to commute to work.

A large U.K. study suggests that cycling commuters cut their risk of cancer and heart disease nearly in half. The researchers hope the findings will encourage more people to pedal their way to better health.

For almost 20 years, scientists have said cycling is associated with lower risk of death from all causes. How strongly wasn't clear.  

To find out, researchers tapped a detailed database of medical and lifestyle information on more than 260,000 British adults with an average age of 53. They also checked death certificates and hospital admission records.

When investigators compared commuting by walking, cycling, car or public transport or a combination, cycling was the clear winner.

Over an average five years of followup, 2,430 participants died, Dr. Jason Gill of the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow and his co-authors said in this week's issue of BMJ.

Cycling to work was associated with a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 per cent lower risk of heart disease compared with commuting by car or public transit.

The results are important, the researchers said, because "active commuting" helps people to be physically active as part of their daily routine instead of carving out time to hit the gym.

Commuters who walked nearly 10 kilometres or more than six miles a week also showed a lower risk of cardiovascular damage such as heart attacks and strokes.  

While a clear cause and effect can't be determined in this study, previous randomized trials show cycling improves fitness.

Canadian cycling's room to improve

Many of the studies on active commuting have been in countries with strong infrastructure for cycling, such as Nordic countries and China.

The U.K. study is the largest to date. And its findings are a clear call to governments to encourage and support people toward more active modes of travel, says a journal editorial published with the study.

This week, Statistics Canada reported that in 2013-2014, 41 per cent of Canadians aged 12 or older or about 12 million people said they'd cycled in the previous year.

Cycling was most common among preteen to 14-year-olds at 82 per cent. Among those aged 50 and older, 27 per cent said they rode a bike.

The popularity of cycling varied across the country, including:

- Quebec 48 per cent.

- Manitoba 46 per cent.

- Saskatchewan 38 per cent.

- Ontario 38 per cent.

- New Brunswick 32 per cent.

- Nunavut 23 per cent.

- Newfoundland and Labrador 18 per cent.

There's a lot of potential to increase cycling and improve health in North America, which generally resembles the U.K. levels, said editorial author Lars Bo Andersen. He is a professor who studies sports medicine and public health at the Western Norwegian University in Bergen, Norway.

The main barrier to converting from car commuters to active travellers is low perceived safety, Bo Andersen said. Countries where commuter cycling is common have benefited from solid investments over decades.

Ease congestion 

"If you used just one per cent of the budget you have for road construction for car driving to build bike lanes, you would have a bike lane system at the level of Amsterdam or Copenhagen in a few years," Bo Andersen said.

"For me, it is more surprising that you don't try to solve some of your pollution problems and rush hour problems by giving car drivers an alternative, especially when you can improve health at the same time."

The costs of treating Type 2 diabetes, cancers and cardiovascular disease is substantial and it would be cheaper to find ways for prevention."

He estimated that for England and Wales, commuter cycling prevented 8,000 deaths between 2005 to 2010. For each per cent increase in commuter cycling, another 3,076 deaths could be prevented each year.

First, cycling needs to be a priority and a natural part of city planning, Bo Andersen said.

In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, municipal workers make 10-year plans to improve cycling infrastructure as Canadian cities do for drivers, he said.  Norway's electronic road tax helps to finance some bike lanes.