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
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
What is needed is a lifetime of everyday
moderate activity. Activities which are most health promoting
habitual and not seasonal, and
are maintained throughout life.
What activities meet those
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,
- heavy housework and
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,
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
Looking at the common activities in more
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”
Once people start cycling, they do it all
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
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
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
increased use of fats as an energy source in
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
(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
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
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
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
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)