20th April 2017 – "Get on your bike" was the advice that Norman Tebbit gave to millions of unemployed people in the 1980s.
The right-wing Tory peer has come in for a good deal of criticism for his comment, but new research suggests that people who have jobs can cut their risk of dying from major diseases if they commute by bike instead of relying on cars and public transport.
Lord Tebbit never mentioned walking to work, but this has also been shown to provide major health benefits.
Many studies have extolled the virtues of cycling and walking in keeping us healthy. Now, researchers at the University of Glasgow have investigated what effect so-called 'active commuting' has on cutting our risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The team looked at information on 264,377 people with an average age of 53 whose details were stored on a database of biological information. All the participants were asked how they got to and from work on a typical day. Over around 5 years, this information was compared to hospital admissions and deaths.
They found that people who walked to work had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and dying as a result of any cause. But commuting by bike also reduced the risk of getting cancer, as well as other risks.
Those who got to and from work under their own steam, as well as by using public transport, also fared well, but only if the 'active' part of their daily routine comprised getting on their bike.
The researchers point out that they conducted an 'observational' study in which they used third-hand data and are therefore unable to prove cause and effect. However, they write that "the findings, if causal, suggest population health may be improved by policies that increase active commuting, particularly cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes, cycle hire or purchase schemes, and better provision for cycles on public transport".
The study is published in the medical journal, The BMJ. In a linked editorial, Professor Lars Bo Andersen from Western Norwegian University of Applied Sciences, says the UK has lagged behind other countries in providing cycling amenities. "A shift from car to more active modes of travel will also decrease traffic in congested city centres and help reduce air pollution, with further benefits for health," he writes.
Commenting on the research in an emailed statement, Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, says: "It is paramount to make physical activity easier and more accessible if we are to reduce the burden of ill health caused by inactivity.
"Local authorities and workplaces should support this by making using active transport as a means to get to work an easy option."
Hot and out of breath
Clare Hyde, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer, comments by email: " Physical activity helps to reduce the risk of cancer and, while the researchers are cautious about concluding too much about their results, this study helps to highlight the potential benefits of building activity into your everyday life.
"You don't need to join a gym or run the marathon. Anything that gets you a bit hot and out of breath – whether its cycling all or part way to work or doing some housework – can help make a difference."
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