All exercise is beneficial, but cycling is especially beneficial. This is because it's transport and a work-out rolled into one. In fact, one Australian study shows that exercising awheel, being "moderate, habitual and not seasonal", is similar to walking and gardening in its day-in, day-out effectiveness. But ever tried pruning to work?

Cycling: the specific health benefits

As the mass media keeps telling us, we all want to be fit and healthy. Sure, you can join a gym and pound away on the treadmill. But why pay through the nose for hamster-exercise when you can jump on a bike for all the short journeys you may have otherwise used a car for?

Cycling is often touted as a great way to get fit and there’s scientific evidence to back up this claim. There are three main sources of further information on this topic.


‘Cycling and health’ is a summer 2004 compendium of 7000 studies done on the effects of physical activity and cycling. It was paid for by an Italian saddle company and compiled by Professor Froböse and a team of the Center of Health of the German Sports Academy of Cologne.

‘Cycling and Health’ is aimed at promoting cycling though a better understanding of the health benefits riding a bicycle brings.

The full report explains how cycling is beneficial as a cardio-vascular exercise and how it’s kind to joints, unlike running. The associated website contains extracts of the report.


Yep, same title, different people. This is a February 2003 briefing paper for the Regional Cycling Development Team, commissioned by AEA Technology and written by Nick Cavill, a health promotion advisor, and Dr Adrian Davis, a consultant on transport and health.

This is an academic treatise, light on humour. However, it’s packed with crunched numbers, and is useful if you really want to delve into the subject. There’s also an associated promotional leaflet from the Department of Transport, which is easier to digest.

The briefing paper goes large on the costs to society of an inactive lifestyle and has epidemiological studies on cycling and health.

Here’s an extract:

Research from Finland provides some of the strongest evidence for the health benefits of cycling. Two studies suggest that journeys to and from work by bicycle provide exercise of sufficient intensity and duration to improve fitness and health, and that travel by bicycle provides greater increases in measured fitness than does walking. 58 59 This was on the basis of cycling for 30 minutes, at the participants’ own pace, (one way) during commuting. This intervention involved volunteers at a workplace who previously commuted by car or by bus. Among those changing to cycling important physiological changes were found. These consisted of improved aerobic fitness; decreased cardiovascular load in submaximal standard work; increased use of fats as an energy source in physical activity; HDL cholesterol. These changes were observed in healthy young to middle aged adults of low to moderate physical fitness. The researchers concluded that the activity involved in commuting to work has significant potential to maintain or improve health-related physical fitness of previously relatively sedentary healthy adults.

Cavill and Davis’ inclusion of an epidemiological study of cycling and health is the Copenhagen Heart study, which involved 13 375 women and 17 265 men aged between 20- 93 years who were randomly selected from a population of 90 000 living in central Copenhagen.

Of this cohort 14,976 cycled regularly and of whom 6,954 cycled to work. The average time spent cycling in those who did cycle to work was three hours per week. The study found that cycling has a strong protective function. Assessed by self-reported health, blood pressure, cholesterol, Body Mass Index, and risk factors such as smoking, the researchers concluded that: “even after adjustment for other risk factors, including leisure time physical activity, those who did not cycle to work experienced a 39% higher mortality rate than those who did 61 This is a very important finding as it provides direct evidence that regular cyclists are likely to have decreased mortality compared to non cyclists.

Wider benefits of cycling

Cavill and Davis report that the benefits of cycling do not stop at improvements to physical and mental health.

Better air quality

Cycling is a pollution-free, environmentally sustainable mode of transport which makes negligible contributions to congestion.

Reducing noise pollution

Motorised road transport is a major source of noise in the environment, while cycling is virtually silent. A modal transfer away from car use would help reduce road traffic noise pollution.

Reducing danger

By lowering motor traffic we can reduce the levels of real and perceived risk for those on foot and travelling by bike. This can allow people to be as mobile as they would like to be,and in particular lets parents allow their children to walk and cycle to school,to play outside, or travel independently.

Decreasing social exclusion

Lowering levels of motor traffic also prevents people being cut off from essential facilities and services including shops,health facilities,parks and friends and family. Reduced costs to society The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit has put the cost of physical inactivity at around £2bn per year,with around 54,000 lives lost prematurely. A 10% increase in activity would benefit the country by at least £500m per year.

Cycling is safe

Cycling is not dangerous. The British Medical Association has concluded that the benefits of cycling outweigh the loss of life as a result of crashes. In 2000, a total of 125 adults and children were killed in the UK while cycling. By contrast, 125 000 people died in the same year from coronary heart disease in the UK, of which around 45 000 deaths were due to lack of activity.

Countries which have seen a modal shift in favour of cycling have noted reductions in casualties as the roads become safer. For example,in The Netherlands and Denmark,there have been steady increases in the amount of cycling in recent years, accompanied by lower casualty rates per mile. This has been achieved by adopting comprehensive measures to create better conditions for cycling. The more cyclists that there are,the more motorists are aware of cyclists. Consequently they are better at dealing with them and are more positive in their attitude towards them.

The full report can be downloaded from:


‘Pedalling Health’ is an Australian investigation into the medical value of exercising by bicycle. The report was written by Ian Roberts, a lecturer in science at the University of Adelaide; Harry Owen, an associate professor in anaesthesia and intensive care at Flinders University; Peter Lumb, a lecturer in social work and public policy at the University of South Australia; and Colin MacDougall, a lecturer in the Department of Public Health at Flinders University.

The four academics show that cycling is the supreme form of exercise. To be successful long-term, exercise needs to be "moderate, habitual, and not seasonal." The report authors conclude that the only activities that fully meet this definition are gardening, walking, and cycling.

Gym blues

‘Packaged’ exercising is often seen by participants as a chore not a pleasure; people quit. That’s why private gyms charge an annual membership fee, it would be uneconomic to do otherwise.

Cycling, however, incurs no joining fees and does not require expensive equipment (unless you really, really want it). Cycling can be incorporated into a daily routine and need not be exercise for exercise’s sake.

Exercise declines with age, yet cyclists show a smaller decline than those involved in team sports or gym activities. A non-sport exercise such as cycling allows year round participation as part of a daily routine. Cycling is an activity that seniors can safely adopt without the risks of more strenuous exercises.

Practical for all

Cycling is practical for people with various fitness levels – including the least fit. In fact, as bicycles support riders, cycling is a far more benign exercise than, say, jogging. Pavement pounding can strain knees, especially if the novice jogger is, ahem, a tad on the plump side.

Cycling is an exercise open to all. Trikes and adapted bicycles are available for people with severe physical handicaps, and blind ‘stokers’ can cycle with sighted ‘captains’ on tandems.

Moderate exercise

The benefits of regular exercise begins at 800 kCal of exercise a week, but 2000 kCal is preferred; that is, from two and a half to six hours of exercise a week for the average commuter cyclist.

‘Pedalling Health’ demonstrates that exercising at 70 percent of maximum heart rate is better than exercising at 60 percent, but says that 2000 kCal of exercise per week is more important that a few sessions of breathless and sweaty exercise.

Cycling on a regular basis:

* Reduces the cholesterol levels in the blood.

* Increases the high density lipo-protein/cholesterol ratio in the blood as well.

* Reduces the chances of strokes and heart attacks caused by clotting.

* Reduces the chances of illnesses caused by high blood pressure.

* Is as effective as drugs in reducing high blood pressure.

* Makes obesity unlikely thus helping reduce the chances of diabetes.

Ride, don’t die

A tidal wave of blubber is engulfing the world. For instance, here are the main causes of death in the USA:

34 percent: A combination of all causes

33 percent: A sedentary lifestyle

16 percent: Chronic disease

8 percent: Tobacco and alcohol

7 percent: High blood pressure and being overweight

2 percent: Family history of disease

Walking is good, cycling is better

In a Finnish study of men and women who had freely chosen their own method of exercise, walkers reached 60 percent of their maximum heart rate, and cyclists reached 70 percent of theirs. As a result, the cyclists’ bodies improved more: the walkers averaged a VO2 max of 38 while the cyclists averaged 57. The cyclists’ exercise was high enough to achieve a training response; that of the walkers was not.

Bikes rock!

‘Pedalling Health’ says cycling is positive in many ways. It’s "non-polluting, non-congesting, non-road damaging, non-threatening, health promoting, and environmentally sustainable."

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