We all know the key to staying healthy and living longer lies in two things: diet and exercise. Meal prep plans keep us on track with healthy eating, while gym memberships aren't always advantageous for the lazy. Now, researchers at Glasgow University in Scotland suggest riding a bike to work can help keep us fit, and even beat the odds of getting cancer or heart disease by almost half.

“Cycling all or part of the way to work was associated with substantially lower risk of adverse health outcomes," said Dr. Jason Gill, from the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, in a statement.

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Previous research has touted the effects of cycling on our overall health. In a 2008 study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, researchers found a direct relationship between the time spent cycling and the risk of being diagnosed with cancer, and their cancer recovery rate. Biking for half an hour reduced cancer risk by 34 percent; daily cyclists were 33 percent more likely to survive and recover from cancer; and the risk of cancer mortality dropped by 12 percent for each hour of moderate exercise.

Although it's clear high levels of physical activity are linked to longevity, the exact effects of exercise, like cycling and walking, on cancer are still unclear.

In the new study, published in BMJ, Gill and his colleagues examined the link between active commuting and the incidence of heart disease, cancer, and mortality from all causes in over 260,000 people (average age 53) from the UK Biobank, a database that stores biological information from half a million British adults. Participants recorded the types of transportation (walking, cycling, and non-active, like car or public transport) they used to get to and from work. Data on hospital admissions and deaths were recorded during a five year follow-up period.

The findings revealed cycling to work was associated with the lowest risk of heart disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality. Riding a bike to work led to a 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of heart disease compared to a non-active commuter. Overall, those who biked had a 41 percent lower risk of premature death.

Walking to work did offer some health benefits, but not to the same extent as biking. Those who commuted by foot had a 27 percent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 36 percent lower risk of dying from it. Meanwhile, compared to biking, walking to work lowered the risk of early death also by 27 percent.

The researchers were unable to find a link between a lower risk of cancer or dying early in walkers. However, they have several theories as to why bikers have better odds than walkers.

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"This may be because walkers commuted shorter distances than cyclists – typically 6 miles per week, compared with 30 miles per week – and walking is generally a lower intensity of exercise than cycling," said Dr. Carlos Celis-Morales, study author.

To reap similar benefits as cyclists, walkers would have to commute for two hours a week at an average speed of three miles per hour. However, the researchers caution no concrete conclusions can be formed about cause and effect.

"The findings, if causal, suggest population health may be improved by policies that increase active commuting, particularly cycling, such as the creation of cycle lanes, cycle hire or purchase schemes, and better provision for cycles on public transport," conclude the researchers.

In the U.S., biking to work has increased by 60 percent in the last decade. This is due to many communities taking steps to support more transportation options, such as cycling and walking. Several cities have invested in bike share programs, bike lanes, and more walk-friendly streets. Currently, the West has the highest rate of biking to work at 1.1 percent, while the South has the lowest rate at 0.3 percent.

The health benefits of active commuting can serve as a call for political action to promote more modes of transportation, and reduce the risk of disease.

Source: Celis-Morales CA, Lyall DM, Welsh P et al. Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2017.

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