Cycling to work lowers risk of death by 20%, says NIHR Census study

Cycling to work versus driving has been shown to reduce the risk of premature death by 20%, death by cardiovascular complications by 24% and cancer by 16%, a National Institute for Health Research study of Census data has found.

The analysis took place as the Government has urged against all but necessary use of public transport, which leaves many commuters seeking an alternative. At the peak of lockdown, with the roads generally quiet many took to cycling for transport, but with traffic levels returning to normal there are concerns of a reversal beyond levels previously seen; something that would further deter active travel and increase pollution.

Also in focus is the UK’s apparent obesity problem, to which lack of exercise is said by the World Health Organisation to contribute 3.2 million deaths annually.

The researchers have therefore made transport and building exercise into the daily commute a focal point of their study, which drew insight from 300,000 people in England and Wales, comparing data gathered in 1991, 2001 and 2011.

Compared against those who commuted via car, the NIHR found that cycling to work had the greatest benefit to health, with walkers’ risk of cancer lowered by 7% and train commuters by 12%. Train commuters also had a 10% lower risk of dying.

“The current pandemic is an opportunity to rethink many aspects of society. If fewer people are travelling by public transport due to social distancing, more will be driving to work.

“This could increase the risk of death and disease as well as impacting air quality in urban areas. The Lancet Planetary Health paper suggests that providing safe, convenient access to cycle infrastructure could reduce deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease. Policies which aim to increase walking, cycling, and public transport could also reduce air pollution,” wrote the Institute.

Lead author Richard Patterson, MRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Public Health Interventions, University of Cambridge added: “Private car use will need to be reduced to meet future health goals, and climate commitments. Business as usual will mean continuing high levels of physical inactivity, which is linked to obesity and other metabolic diseases and ultimately death.

“Interventions to improve health can often lead to worsening inequalities as those best positioned to take advantage are those with existing better health. It was surprising and reassuring to see in this study that the benefits of cycling appear to apply to everyone.

The full paper, authored by Patterson R and others, is now available to read at TheLancet.com.