Rethinking your morning commute could save your life. A 2018 study published in the journal Heart found commuters who walked, biked or took public transit to work were healthier and lived longer than car commuters.
The researchers analyzed data from more than 350,000 participants in the United Kingdom and compared the health outcomes of non-commuters with those who reported traveling to work at least three times per week. The results were clear: Active commuting was linked with an 11% risk reduction for cardiovascular disease and 30% risk reduction for all-cause mortality (the likelihood of dying from any cause) during the study period.
A study published in BMJ showed similar results. Researchers followed 263,450 participants for five years and found commuters who biked to work — even part of the distance — had lower incidences of cardiovascular disease and cancer and a 41% lower risk of all-cause mortality; those who walked to work had a 27% lower risk of having a heart attack.
Researcher Jason Gill, PhD, professor in the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow was not surprised active commuters lived longer, healthier lives, explaining, “There is a large and consistent [body] of evidence that being physically active has a number of health benefits.”
The problem, according to Gill, is exercise often falls to the bottom of our to-do lists. An active commute fulfills the essential task of getting to work with the need to squeeze in a workout, making it an ideal excuse-buster.
“As it becomes part of your daily routine, it also becomes something that you just do, whereas going to the gym can be easy to skip if you are too busy or not in the mood,” Gill says.
THE DOWNSIDE OF BIKING
In the BMJ study, biking to work was associated with the biggest health benefits. Bicycle commuters tended to commute longer distances (30 miles per week compared to six miles a week for walkers) and were most apt to get the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity recommended in federal guidelines.
Gill speculates that bicycle commuting is also less stressful than being stuck behind the wheel or crammed into a crowded train car during rush hour, which could add to the health benefits.
Although federal data showed the number of bicycle commuters increased 60% over the last decade, bicycle commuting is not without its risks. Adults reported more than 3.8 million non-fatal bicycle injuries from 1997–2013; and a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found biking to work was 500 times more fatal than riding the bus.
To make bicycle commuting safer, the League of American Bicyclists offers Commuting 101 classes for cyclists and bicycle-friendly driver training for car commuters to teach the basics of sharing the roads more safely.
Amelia Neptune, director of the nonprofit’s Bicycle-Friendly America program admits, “In a lot of places in the U.S., the infrastructure [for bicycle commuters] isn’t up to par yet.”
As bicycle commuting gains in popularity, Neptune believes it has collective health benefits, including improved air quality.
Wearing a helmet and following the rules of the road, including using available bike lanes and obeying traffic signals, can make bicycle commuting safer. Asking experienced bike commuters for tips can also be helpful, according to Gill.
“Often regular cyclists know of off-road or quiet routes that others may not be aware of,” he says.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Because the benefits of active commuting outweigh the risks, Gill encourages creative efforts to make it happen: Bike to the train station instead of driving or get off public transportation several stops before work and walk the remaining distance. No bike, no problem. A growing number of cities have bike-sharing programs that make it easy to pick up and drop off a bike along your route. Ultimately, Gill says, “Try to build some active commuting into your day.”