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Cycling and Your Heart

Cycling is good for you!

There is no doubt that cycling is good for you in lots of ways. But few people realise just how good! This page gives you the evidence. This page could change your life for the better. 

Exercise is essential for health

We all need to do exercise. Adults who are physically active are 20–30% less likely to die early (premature death) and have up to half (50%) the risk of developing major chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers.

“The scientific evidence is compelling. Physical activity not only contributes to well-being, but is also essential for good health.” (Chief Medical Officer)

How big is this risk?

To get this risk in perspective, let’s compare the risk of not exercising to smoking. We all know that smoking is very bad for you and significantly increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. Researchers have found that sedentary men have around twice the risk of a heart attack compared to active men, which is similar to the increased risk due to smoking more than 20 cigarettes a day.

["Sedentary" is a word used to indicate people who do very little or no moderate activity]

In other words ...

Doing little or no exercise has the same risk of a heart attack as smoking 20 cigarettes a day

And it gets worse…

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the single biggest killer in England. Around 40% of all deaths are due to CHD. Many of these coronary heart disease deaths could be prevented. It has been calculated that around 37% of all CHD deaths are due to physical inactivity compared to around 19% from smoking.

We don’t do enough exercise

Medical advice is that everyone should do a minimum of 30 minutes moderate activity on at least five days of the week. That is the minimum level of exercise we all need to stay fit and reduce our risk of coronary heart disease.

However, when surveys are done of how much exercise we do, the results show that only around 25% of women and 35% of men do enough exercise. What is more, levels of exercise rapidly decline as we get older (see chart) even though our risk of a heart attack goes up.

What is exercise?

The word “exercise” sounds a forbidding word and nearly all of us have a natural reluctance to start exercising. Many think of exercise in terms of sports or gyms, feeling stressed or getting exhausted – too much like hard work and too difficult to fit into a busy life. But that is not what is really needed.

"Physical activity is any activity that increases your heart rate and makes you get out of breath some of the time".

What is needed is a lifetime of everyday moderate activity. Activities which are most health promoting are:


habitual and not seasonal, and

are maintained throughout life.

What activities meet those criteria?

There are very few activities which meet those 3 criteria of moderation, habit and life time activity. Adults do not have any natural inclination to do exercise. A lot of exercise is the result of youthful interest in sports. Good intentions but short term effort in middle age is not the answer.  

For a life time of regular moderate activity, it must be incorporated into people’s normal everyday life, must not need a special facility (like a gym) and must be seen as enjoyable and/or must be done as part of normal living. Very often, these activities are not even really seen as exercise.

When you look at the whole population, there are only four common activities, which meet the 3 criteria for healthy living and are easily incorporated into people’s everyday lives. They are:

  • brisk walking,
  • gardening
  • heavy housework and
  • cycling

Energy levels of different activities

In calculating whether you are getting enough physical activity, you can use four broad divisions:

Resting or sedentary states (around 1-2 kcal per minute): sleeping, resting, watching TV, reading, driving, sitting.


Light activity (around 2-3 kcal per minute): most office work, most housework or cooking with electrical or mechanical appliances, golf, shopping, normal walking speed.


Moderate activity (around 4-7 kcal per minute): cycling, gardening, swimming, tennis, physical housework without mechanical aids, brisk walking or hill walking, climbing stairs, dancing, DIY and many manual jobs.


Vigorous activity (8+ kcal per minute): jogging, running, many sports such as football or squash, heavy manual jobs like building. 


A healthy balance is around 16 hours sleep, rest or sedentary activity, 7 hours light activity and around 1 hour moderate activity.


Remember: A minimum of half an hour a day of moderate activity is essential for health. A moderate activity is an activity which gets you out of breath some of the time.


Choosing your activity


Which activity or activities you choose is not important as long as you do it regularly most days over your life.


Looking at the common activities in more detail


Walking is probably the most common form of exercise, but normal walking on the flat does not provide enough challenge. Normal walking speed is around 3mph an hour, whilst brisk walking is around 4-5mph an hour, but to go at this speed, you have to consciously adapt a fast walking style. Walking in a hilly area does give sufficient exercise.


Gardening with its range of different activities is naturally quite strenuous. Digging with a spade would count as a vigorous activity.


Heavy housework includes activities like cleaning, polishing, sweeping, hanging out washing, but with mechanical aids, most housework is now light activity.  


Cycling is an ideal form of exercise. What is more, participants can adapt their energy output to their level of fitness or age, with typical ranges of 3.5 to 12 kcal per minute depending on speed (5-15mph).  

“Commuter cycling at a self-selected intensity meets the recommendations for health improvement and the recommendations for improvement of cardio-respiratory fitness” (Geus 2007)


Once people start cycling, they do it all their lives


There is strong evidence that once people adapt to using the bike with all its freedom, reliability and quickness for short journeys, people keep cycling throughout their lives.


In Netherlands around 25% of all journeys are by cycle for all age groups, including over 75 year olds.

In Germany around 9% of all journeys are by cycle for all age groups from 18 to 75 years old and even over 85 year old men make 5% of journeys by cycle.


In UK only around 1% of journeys are by cycle but this applies to all age groups from over the age of 21 to over 70 years old.


Can cycling really make a difference?


There have been many surveys which show that cycling can have short and long term benefits for health. The most convincing research follows a large number of people over a long period of time. These show that cycling significantly reduces the risk of premature death.  


Short term benefits


Dutch research (Hendriksen 1996) found that for those with a low initial fitness level, a cycle trip of 3 kilometres (2 miles) cycled twice a day (there and back) was enough to improve physical performance if repeated at least three times a week.

Research from Finland (Vuori, Oja et al 1991, 1994 and 1998) provides some of the strongest evidence for the health benefits of cycling. Commuters changing to cycling showed important physiological changes


improved aerobic fitness;

decreased cardiovascular load in submaximal standard work;

increased use of fats as an energy source in physical activity;

better cholesterol levels


The authors state “These observations confirmed the hypothesis that previously inactive middle-aged men and women can benefit their function and health by regularly walking or cycling the trip to work”.

Long term benefits


The Copenhagen Heart Study (Andersen 2000) involved following the health of 13,375 women and 17,265 men aged between 20-93 years over a period of 14 years. Of this cohort 15,000 cycled regularly, including 7000 who cycled to work. The research shows that bicycling to work decreases the overall risk of death (including risk of accidents). The authors state “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”.


A similar UK study (Morris et al 1990) tracked the health of 9,000 civil servants between the ages of 45-64 over 9 years. Those (7% of the group) who reported cycling at least 25 miles (= commuter trip of 2.5 miles each way) during the week experienced less than half the non-fatal and fatal coronary heart disease events (heart attacks) than did those who took no physical activity during the course of the 9 year study.


A Finnish study (Hu 2004) looked at the impacts of physical activity and weight on the health of 19,000 Finnish men and women aged 25–74 years over a 10 year period. It divided people into 2 groups "inactive" and "active" - the "inactive" only did light activity, the "active" did either 4 hours moderate activity a week (such as cycling) or had an active job. For both men and women, compared to the active group, being inactive or obese (>30BMI) increased the chance of  stroke or heart disease by 35-70%. Being both inactive and obese doubled the chance of stroke or heart disease. It concludes: "Physical activity has a strong protective effect on CVD risk ... and can also can protect against the premature CVD in overweight and obese individuals" 


(Note CVD = cardio-vascular disease which includes both stroke and heart disease)

Another US study (Paffenberger et al 1993) tracked the health of 10,000 men aged 45 to 84 between 1977 and 1985. Their conclusions were that “beginning moderately vigorous sports activity, quitting cigarette smoking, maintaining normal blood pressure, and avoiding obesity were separately associated with lower rates of death from all causes and from coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older men”


Healthy living = Long life


Good health largely depends on a good diet, being active, not smoking and not drinking to excess. A recent study (Khaw 2008) tracked over 20,000 UK residents aged 45-79 for 11 years. It assigned a score of 1 for each of the health giving factors:


Being active (at least 30 minutes a day)

Eating at least 5 portions of vegetables or fruit a day

Drinking under 14 units of alcohol a week

Not smoking


An individual could score between 0 (they failed to do any of the above) and 4 (they did all the above). It found that each factor increased the chances of a healthy life, whereas those who scored 0 were four times more likely to die over the 11 year period than those who scored 4. This equated to 14 years extra life. Healthy living reduced the chance of cardio-vascular diseases but also cancer and other fatal diseases. The benefit applied to men and women equally.


The authors conclude "These results provide further support for the idea that even small differences in lifestyle may make a big difference to health in the population and encourage behaviour change." 

Older people need exercise as well


Exercise can help you live to 90. A survey of over 2000 men from the ages of 70 to over 90 over 25 years found that "smoking, diabetes, obesity and hypertension significantly reduced the likelihood of a 90-year lifespan, while regular exercise substantially improved it" (Yates 2008).


Bedford – Better By Bike


You have got this far. The important thing now is to get started. Your heart and health deserve it.

Further reading #

There is an enormous amount of information available on cycling and health. The Sustrans website has a comprehensive list of references.



Lars Bo Andersen et al (2000), “All-Cause Mortality Associated With Physical Activity During Leisure Time, Work, Sports and Cycling to Work,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 160, No. 11, June 12, 2000, pp. 1621-1628 (Download this PDF file)

B de Geus, S De Smet, J Nijs, R Meeusen (2007) “Determining the intensity and energy expenditure during commuter cycling”, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2007; 41:8-12

Hendriksen Ingrid (1996) “The Effect of Commuter Cycling on Physical Performance and on Coronary Heart Disease Factors”, Amsterdam 1996

Hu, Gang, Jaakko Tuomilehtoa, Karri Silventoinen, Noel Barengoc,Pekka Jousilahtia (2004) "Joint effects of physical activity, body mass index, waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio with the risk of cardiovascular disease among middle-aged Finnish men and women"

Khaw KT, Wareham N, Bingham S, Welch A, Luben R, et al. (2008) Combined impact of health behaviours and mortality in men and women: the EPIC-Norfolk Prospective Population study. PLoS Med 5(1): e12. doi:10.1371/journal. (Download PDF file)

Morris, J., Clayton, D., Everitt, M., Semmence, A. and Burgess, E. (1990) “Exercise in Leisure Time: Coronary attack and death rates”, British Heart Journal, Vol 63, pp 325-334

Oja P., Manttari, A., Heinonen, A, Kukkonen-Harjula, K, Laukkanen, R., Pasanen, M. and Vuori, I. (1991) “Physiological Effects of Walking and Cycling to Work”, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports, Vol 1, pp 151-157

Oja, P., Vuori, I. and Paronen, O. (1998) “Daily walking and cycling to work: their utility as health-enhancing physical activity”, Patient Education and Counselling, 33, S87-94

Paffenberger et al. (1993) “The association of changes in physical activity level and other lifestyle characteristics with mortality among men”, NEJM, volume 328, pp 538-545, Feb 25 1993 (Abstract)

Vuori, I., Oja, P. and Paronen, O. (1994) “Physically active commuting to work – testing its potential for exercise promotion", Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise”, Vol. 26(7), pp. 844-85

Yates, Laurel; Luc Djoussé; Tobias Kurth; Julie E. Buring; J. Michael Gaziano (2008) "Exceptional longevity in men: Modifiable Factors Associated With Survival and Function to Age 90 Years", Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(3):284-290 (Abstract)

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