Sunday, September 20

Why the health benefits of cycling to work outweigh the risk of injury

Cycling woman

On balance, cycling is good for you

Sturti/Getty Images

People who cycle to work in the UK have a higher risk of getting injured badly enough to be hospitalised, according to a study published yesterday. It led to headlines saying this is 50 per cent more likely for cyclists than non-cyclists. But don’t get off your bike – the research also found that the overall health benefits of cycling vastly outweigh the injury risks.

This adds to a lot of evidence suggesting that cycling is extremely worthwhile, but people seem reluctant to start. Of the 230,390 UK commuters that participated in the latest study, only 2.5 per cent said cycling was their main method of commuting.

So why are people hesitating? As someone who cycles to work myself, a big worry is the danger of having an accident – and I’m not alone. A 2015 UK government survey found that 64 per cent of people thought riding on roads would be too dangerous.

The new study, which looked at outcomes over 10 years, shows those fears aren’t unreasonable – commuting by bike is associated with an increased risk of admission to hospital for injury, with 7 per cent of cyclists experiencing such an injury compared to 4.3 per cent of non-cyclists. Squint a bit, and you can turn that into the “50 per cent more likely” figure mentioned above.

But Paul Welsh at the University of Glasgow in the UK, who led the study and who cycles himself, says the risk of death from cycling injury is vanishingly small. In fact, it is far outweighed by the decreased risk of death that comes from the increased physical activity and lower BMI of cyclists. “The data are still very much in favour of cycling for those who are capable of doing so,” says Welsh.

Cyclists have a far lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and death compared with people who drive, take public transport or walk to work – a finding supported by this and previous studies. If an extra 1000 people took up cycling for 10 years, we would expect to see 15 fewer cancers, four fewer heart attacks or strokes and three fewer deaths in that group.

Cycling gets our hearts pumping, says Anne Lusk at Harvard University, who wasn’t involved in the study. It requires more effort than walking – even just balancing on a bike uses many more muscles than are needed to stay upright while walking.

And don’t forget the environmental benefits of cycling. Getting people out of cars and buses reduces pollution and improves the local environment.

Instead of putting people off cycling, we should see this study as confirming the need to make infrastructure safer for cyclists, encouraging more people to commute by bike. Just don’t forget your helmet.

Journal reference: BMJ, DOI: 10.1136/bmj.m336