Study: People Who Bike to Work Live Longer Than People Who Drive

Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr
Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

It’s dangerous not to bike to work.

Overall mortality among bike commuters is significantly lower than among people who don’t bike or walk to work, according to a robust study recently published in the British Medical Journal. Controlling for a range of other factors, author Carlos Celis-Morales and his team found that bike commuting is linked to significantly lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Using data collected by the UK Biobank, which surveys the health status of more than half a million people over time, the research team found that bike commuters were 41 percent less likely to die during the five-year study period than people who drove or took transit.

In other words, people who bike to work are living longer than people who drive or take transit to work. The connection between bike commuting and lower mortality is “independent of sex, age, deprivation, ethnicity, smoking status, recreational and occupational physical activity, sedentary behaviour, dietary patterns, and other confounding factors,” the authors write.

The data came from more than 260,000 British workers between the ages of 40 and 69, whose health outcomes were recorded over five years.

Among bike commuters, the likelihood of contracting or dying from heart disease was about half that of sedentary commuters. Bike commuters were also 45 percent less likely to contract cancer and 40 percent less likely to die from it.

Similar but weaker correlations were observed for people who walked to work or biked for part of their commute. Walking to work was associated with reduced risk of contracting or dying from cardiovascular disease, but not cancer or overall mortality.

The authors speculate that, as opposed to cycling, walking does not require enough physical activity to affect health outcomes, except for those who had long walking commutes — at least six miles per week.  

While the study does not prove causation, Celis-Morales writes that the results strongly suggest that efforts to build transportation networks that encourage cycling “may be a viable approach to deliver health benefits related to physical activity at the population level.”

Hat tip: Peter Flax.

  • George M

    Did this study also account for the increased likelihood of death from a traffic accident while on a bike vs in a car? I’m an avid bike commuter myself in Atlanta and am just genuinely curious. I bike for the exercise, reducing emissions, and to add to bike ridership statistics to hope that one day we truly have quality and safe biking infrastructure, but always figured I was taking an average ~5 years off my life given the number of times I’ve almost been run over by crazy drivers.

  • Joe R.

    Despite the number of near misses every cyclist seems to experience, the odds of getting killed while cycling are actually quite low compared to other causes of death. Under 1,000 people die annually on a bike. Yes, over 90% of those deaths involve a motor vehicle but compare that to the leading causes of death:

    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm

    Cycling substantially reduces most of the things on that list, including suicide. Exercise increases your feeling of well-being. By doing that, you have a lower risk of suicide. I can personally attest to cycling helping me get through some really rough periods in my life.

    You also need to look at your chances of dying if you took some mode besides cycling. Cars aren’t exactly safe. Your chance of dying in a car if you drove instead of cycled might be nearly as high. Bottom line, cyclists dying in traffic incidents is statistical noise compared to the gains in health cycling offers.

  • SilvioRodriquez

    I don’t know about this study, but I know other studies have compared benefits and risks, including getting squashed by a car and find that “benefits outweigh the risks by an order of magnitude.”
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3060010/
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920084/

  • Chuck Hammerstein

    First thought echoes those below on health vs. collision risk. I’ve commuted by bus, bike and for the last 15 years by motorcycle.

    For bicyclists, I plead with you guys to wear a light, vented motorcycle helmet of some sort, even the 1/4 helmet is better than the useless perforated thing called a bike helmet (but some helmet is better than none!) MIPs is good too.

    We face an overall higher danger than anyone else, although not as bad as bicyclists for being hit by cars. (We can kill ourselves) Air pollution dangers are higher for all bikes. Buses are the safest due to size. Rail in L.A. so far is fatality free (from collisions). Walking (per mile) is very risky. Going to gym risks skin bacteria but benefits outweigh risks, like bikes I guess.

  • Vooch

    For drivers I plead with you to wear helmets.

    The head injury rate among car occupants is off the chart.

    Also – every single measure of air quality inside cars establishes how unbelievably concentrated air pollution becomes inside a car during rush hour.

    Open your windows when you drive – the air is far cleaner outside https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9f480adeafbdf90f342fefd05c03d35c433129782afe97cd92066e2a9c60fe43.jpg

  • Wilfried84

    From the report, “In maximally adjusted models, commuting by cycle and by mixed mode including cycling were associated with lower risk of all cause mortality (cycling hazard ratio 0.59, 95% confidence interval 0.42 to 0.83, P=0.002; mixed mode cycling 0.76, 0.58 to 1.00, P<0.05)…” So risk of dying includes the risk of getting creamed by a double decker bus (in which case a helmet would do little good). So wear a helmet, don’t wear a helmet, but get on a bike! You’ll live longer.

  • Wilfried84

    “In maximally adjusted models, commuting by cycle and by mixed mode including cycling were associated with lower risk of all cause mortality (cycling hazard ratio 0.59, 95% confidence interval 0.42 to 0.83, P=0.002; mixed mode cycling 0.76, 0.58 to 1.00, P<0.05)…” I’m repeating myself, so just follow the link and read the report, or even just the abstract.

  • LazyReader

    What the argument is……..aerobic outdoor activity leads to longer life expectancy, whether it be bike, walk or driving to the gym for it.

  • Mike Jones

    Another flawed study, the people in the picture are in the US. US/UK easily done.

  • John Richmond

    How is the study flawed?

  • John Richmond

    George M – in other cities your chance of being squashed by something with 4+ wheels might be less! I’m not sure about my city though…

  • james

    Your much more likely to get in a serious car accident driving a car than a serious accident riding a bike. Just pay attention, be polite and have fun!

    The most important equipment for safety is a review mirror. I recommend it over a helmet any day!

  • Adam Short

    because it says something he doesn’t agree with

  • Adam Short

    This suffers from the same fallacy as using head injury rates from bike fatalities. People who die in severe accidents usually have head injuries. That doesn’t mean they would have been saved by a helmet.

    Wearing head protection makes you safer if it doesn’t affect your risk-taking behavior. That’s true across many activities. If it makes you less risk-averse, it’s usually bad. The trouble is, that advice is complicated to give because people can’t accurately assess their own level of risk tolerance, and the most risk-tolerant people (who would gain the most benefit from helmets) are the people most likely to forego a helmet if they receive confusing messages about helmets.

    In the end, wear a helmet but don’t imagine it makes you safe. What makes you safe is not getting in a high-speed crash.

  • Adam Short

    “Your much more likely to get in a serious car accident driving a car than a serious accident riding a bike. ”

    Depends where you are, and what your definition of “serious” is. For most people riding a bike probably carries a slightly higher risk of death by car accident vs. driving a car to the same place. But this slight increase in risk is far outweighed by the health benefits of cycling.

  • Vooch

    that’s why all children in cars should wear helmets

  • how Amerikan

  • AdamReynolds

    No, the study looked at modes of commuting. It showed the impact of walking to be significantly less. In terms of health benefits it is cycling to work that had the big health benefits.

  • AdamReynolds

    From the report, “In maximally adjusted models, commuting by cycle and by mixed mode including cycling were associated with lower risk of all cause mortality (cycling hazard ratio 0.59, 95% confidence interval 0.42 to 0.83, P=0.002; mixed mode cycling 0.76, 0.58 to 1.00, P<0.05)…” so yes.

  • EricEatsPickles

    Except they didn’t measure the outcome (nor the time or expense) of driving to the gym. And walking less than 6 miles a week doesn’t cut it either.

  • John Richmond

    I find this phenomenon a lot on conservative websites and comment sections — I suppose leftists can be vulnerable to that kind of thinking to but it really seems to take hold on the right

  • The Dutch don’t wear helmets. The Danes don’t wear helmets. Uncle Slayton doesn’t tell other people how to live their lives, but he does make it a point not to get hit by a motorist while cycling. Grow up, Chuck. It’s not your call. We’re not children. We’re not your pets. You want to wear a helmet…wear one.

  • qatzelok

    The only thing that “makes you safe” if you’re on a bicycle, is proper bicycle infrastructure. Building protected bike lanes is the responsibility of government. So, if a cyclist gets killed in a place where no safe infrastructure has been provided, it’s the government that has really killed him.

    Poor governance is the worst enemy of the urban cyclist. And helmets are just a convenient scapegoat-distraction for governments that don’t really want to do anything.

  • Alek ZD

    It sucks when you can only afford to live in cities that lack walkability and transit. We get that it’s better for you but not all of us have those opportunities.

  • Stephen Simac

    He’s “pleading” not commanding. That’s a long way from mandatory helmet laws, but obviously some Nederlanders and Danes do wear helmets. Most don’t, but I’ve yet to see a study comparing TBI’s traumatic brain injuries among walkers, cyclists, motorists-(traffic crashes have the most for sheer numbers, although they increase drastically among older adult pedestrians, if walking inside your own home counts) in different countries. Helmets don’t protect against all concussions or head injuries, but when the sausage truck hit me on my bicycle, I was grateful that my “useless, perforated thing called a bike helmet” took the brunt of skull contact with asphalt

  • Stephen Simac

    The majority of bicycle crashes don’t involve motor vehicles, usually due to surface conditions, rider error or inattention, so “protected” bicycle lanes or separate but unequal paths are not going to “make you safe” from these crashes. More fatalities are from being hit by a vehicle, but rider only injuries can often be the end of cycling for riders, with pain and suffering lasting for years, if not a lifetime.

  • John Lindstrom

    We are all born with legs. Therefore, use them.

  • qatzelok

    Are shoes+only walking injuries also a major risk? Or does a car have to be involved for injury to be serious?

    Most cycling head injuries are minor scrapes received by kids. But if a car is involved- death or disability is likely, even if you wear an inch of expensive foam on your head.

    Cars and car propaganda have ruined our bodies and minds.

    Oh, and sausage trucks, like the one that hit you, can’t get near you on a protected bike lane.

  • crazyvag

    6 miles per week is 1.2 miles a day or .6 miles each way which is 10 mins each way?

    Given all their data, couldn’t they don’t a little bit more analysis and say how much walking a day is needed to get same benefits as biking?

  • Stephen Simac

    That really depends on the design of the “protected” lane, because the sausage truck hit me at an intersection, and that will be where most motor vehicle bicycle collisions happen with bike lanes, open or closed. I’ve been hit from behind as well, so theoretically those would be protected, although pedestrians are frequently killed on sidewalks by cars, so there’s no guarantees that a vehicle won’t breach a
    “protective” barrier.
    I’ve heard of too many serious rider only injuries to both heads and other parts to think only collisions do major damage. I took to wearing a helmet because it held my extended sun visor on securely,Tthis was in Florida, so protecting from skin damage was as big a factor as skull saving. In my case the helmet worked for both, but you’re right, won’t do much in a high speed collision. That’s why I’m for reducing motor vehicle speeds to 20 mph in the curb lane, (painted yellow) shared by all wheeled users, so there’s no need for a bike lane, protected or otherwise.

  • James

    Correlation is not causation. The generalization with bike riders is they generally eat healthier and smoke less. So if the bicyclers fit that generalization, it’s not the bike riding that made the difference. It’s all their lifestyle choices.

  • clarknt67

    And people with health issues are less likely to bike as it’s more taxing. But there’s a chicken and egg affect. If you’re not willing to tax your body, like participating in exercise, it’s going to degrade. There are definitely days I wake up and think I’d rather subway to work than bike, but I bike anyway (and usually my morning fatigue passes in a few blocks of fresh air).

  • clarknt67

    80K deaths a year by diabetes > 1K by bike accident. If really only Americans understood the risk associated with that soda or that candy bar.

  • GuyJohonson
  • Brandon Chapman

    Just don’t ride on the damned street. Those people are insane! I keep off to the sidewalks, bike trails, or grass/dirt where no sidewalk exists. You either got good instincts or not. People who crash from inattentiveness win the darwin award. Keep on biking!

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