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How cycling combats heart disease and cancer

Did you know that people who cycle regularly are significantly less likely to develop cancer and heart disease? These are just two of many health benefits of cycling.

We’re all being encouraged to be more active, with walking or biking our daily commute a common recommendation for increasing our activity levels and improving our overall health.

Yet while most of us know that regular activity can boost our health, many people don’t realise just how significant the health benefits of cycling can be.

In fact, a number of studies have shown that people who cycle regularly are at lower risk from cancer and heart disease, and actually have significantly lower mortality rates overall.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a collective term for a range of different conditions that affect your heart.

Common types of heart disease include:

  • coronary artery disease (and coronary heart disease)
  • arrhythmia
  • congenital heart disease
  • diabetes
  • heart attack
  • angina
  • stroke
  • heart failure

Symptoms of heart disease will differ depending on what condition you have. They can include:

  • chest pain
  • pain, weakness or numbness in the legs and/or arms
  • breathlessness
  • a very fast or slow heartbeat, or palpitations
  • feeling dizzy, lightheaded or faint
  • fatigue
  • swollen limbs1

If you are worried you may have any of the above conditions, or are exhibiting any of the above symptoms, it’s important to speak to your GP immediately.

What does the science say?

A number of scientific studies have found that cycling reduces your risks of cancer and heart disease.

2017 study into active commuting
In 2017, researchers at the University of Glasgow concluded a five-year study involving over a quarter of a million people.2

During these five years, participants were monitored on their typical method of commute as well as their health. Results were adjusted to take into account factors including sex, age, diet and existing illnesses.

The study found that people who cycled to work were 45% less likely to develop heart disease and 46% less likely to develop cancer. These same people were also at a 52% lower risk of death from heart disease if they did develop it, and a 40% lower risk of death if they developed cancer.

Overall, people who cycled to work were at a 41% lower risk of death from any cause.

2020 cohort study into active commuting
In May 2020, a new study was published in The Lancet that again looked into the link between active modes of travel and the prevalence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality.3

The researchers looked at Census data over 25 years to see whether different commutes would have an affect on people’s health.

Again, people who cycled to work were less likely (by 24%) to die of heart disease. They also had a 20% lower overall mortality rate. They were 11% less likely to develop cancer and 16% less likely to die of it if they did.

Walking also reduces the risk of heart disease

The 2017 study also found that people who walked to work had lower rates of heart disease.

Walking commuters were 27% less likely to develop heart disease and had a 36% lower risk of dying from it.2

Although this study didn’t find a reduced risk of cancer incidence among walking commuters, the 2020 study did. It found that people who walked to work were 7% less likely to develop cancer.3

Why is cycling good for your heart?
Cycling is an effective form of exercise that has benefits for the whole body. Just as it strengthens your arms, legs and other muscles, cycling can help to strengthen your heart muscle.

The stronger your heart, the more effectively it pumps blood through your body, which lowers your heart rate and reduces the risk of high blood pressure. You’ll be reducing the pressure on your heart and in turn reducing your risk of heart disease.

Regular cycling can also help you to lower your levels of bad cholesterol, reduce stress and maintain a healthy weight, all of which are good for your heart.

The benefits of an active commute
For most people, commuting is something we do almost every day. That means that turning your commute into a workout is one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re getting regular exercise.

Pedal power

We all know that fitting exercise into a busy schedule can be difficult, and often when we get home from work it’s the last thing we want to do. But if you are actually exercising (for example cycling or walking) in order to get home, you’ve already done your workout for the day.

Cycling just 15 minutes to and from work each weekday adds up to the 150 weekly minutes of moderate activity recommended by the NHS.4

Many people find that walking, cycling or running to work helps wake them up, setting them up for a more enjoyable and productive day.

There’s also the environmental benefit that comes from leaving the car at home. (This is true of commuting by public transport, too.)

How to get started

If your workplace is close enough to your home to allow you to walk or cycle there, why not give it a try? Start with one or two days a week and see how it suits you.

To start cycling, you just need a bicycle, a helmet and some suitable footwear. If you don’t own one already, many employers offer Cycle to Work schemes that will help you with the cost of a bike, and the government often has similar programmes, too.

If you want to start walking to work, all you need is a good pair of shoes.

If you work too far away to walk or cycle the whole way to your place of work, think about whether you could do so for just part of the journey. For example, could you cycle or walk to a train station or bus stop somewhere along the route? Could you get off a few stops early and walk the rest of the way to the office?

There are proven health benefits to incorporating activity into your commute – whether walking or cycling. With such evidence to show the reduced risk of heart disease and cancer from such a small change, what’s stopping you?