Are London cyclists really six times healthier?

A recent press release from Brunel University contained the startling claim that London cyclists are 6 times healthier than those who use other means of transport for their commute. Unsurprisingly such an eye-catching claim generated plenty of press coverage as the story was picked up by the Evening Standard among others.

The most obvious question raised by the headline is what measure of health is being used, and what does it mean for one person to be six times healthier than another. Is their resting heart rate six times lower? Is their aerobic capacity six times higher? Will they live six times longer?

Brunel University Cycling ResearchThe answer is contained in the full report, which can be found in the Journal of Public Health here. By analysing Sport England’s Active People Survey the author discovered that ‘utility cyclists’ (more on this term later) were 4 times more likely than others to meet UK guidelines on amounts of physical activity. For those living in inner London the figure rises to 6 times, which leads us (sort of) to that press-friendly headline.

Of course, undertaking a certain minimum recommended amount of physical activity will not make somebody 6 times fitter than a person who does not. Indeed, someone who just exceeds the threshold may well be only marginally more healthy than somebody who falls just short, or indeed may be less fit once other dietary and lifestyle factors have been accounted for.

Nevertheless, we should be willing to forgive the misleading reporting as long as the overall effect is to communicate the important underlying message. Which is that an individual’s choice of transport can have a dramatic effect on their health. Or more succinctly: cycling to work will make you fitter.  All the evidence suggests that it can also improve your psychological well being, as well as your bank balance.

Build exercise into your daily routine

So how much physical activity should you be doing? Government guidelines suggest that adults (19-64) should aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. One way of doing this would be to cycle a 15 minute journey each way, 5 times a week. When you consider that the average cycle commute in London is 9.3 miles, and so more likely to be around 45 minutes in each direction, it becomes clear that the majority of London cycle commuters will comfortably exceed the recommendation.

The great thing about choosing what are known as active travel options (walking or cycling) is that they incorporate exercise into your daily routine, increasing health using only time that would otherwise be spent sitting in a car or bus, or squashed into a tube carriage.

What is utility cycling?

Shopping by bike: Kamyar Adl

Interestingly the report only accounts for activity classed as ‘utility cycling’. This is defined as ‘cycling for purposes other than…health, recreation, training or competition’.  Riding a bike as a means of transport is the original and still the most common form of cycling, but this captures an important point – that to reap the health benefits offered by cycling you don’t need to don full lycra and head for the Alps, or spin a stationary bike in the gym, or ride endless laps of the velodrome. You can simply choose a bicycle as your everyday way to get around.

Wider implications

This basic insight has important implications for wider society, and for policy makers. It demonstrates that promoting cycling as a transport option has massive potential for improving public health. It also suggests that putting money into making utility cycling a more attractive option, for example through better cycle infrastructure, offers a fantastic return on investment.

Getting started

If you are considering commuting by bike in London but need a little help and advice to get started, a 1-2-1 training session can be a great way to overcome any doubts or fears you may have. It’s not guaranteed to make you six times fitter, but it will be several steps (or turns of the pedals) towards a healthier lifestyle.

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