LEEDS, United Kingdom — Cars are definitely convenient, but they’re not doing our hearts any favors. A study by two former Olympic athletes at Leeds University suggests that walking or cycling to work on a daily basis may lower one’s risk of suffering a heart attack. That’s because the researchers found that areas where more people walked or biked to work saw fewer incidences of heart attacks for men and women.
The study included about 43 million British adults spread across several areas of England, originally collected via the 2011 U.K. census. The aforementioned researchers, Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, are both Olympic medal-winning triathletes and Leeds University alumni. For their study, the Brownlees and their team analyzed the commuting habits, as well as the incidence of heart attacks and heart disease, among residents of various English regions.
Researchers were sure to control for other heart disease risk factors beyond lack of exercise, such as being overweight, smoking, and having diabetes. Even after these adjustments, the researchers still found a link between active commuting and more robust heart health. For men who cycled to work, there was a 1.7% reduction in heart attacks the following year, and women who walked to work saw the same percentage drop.
“Our study at the University of Leeds shows that exercise as a means of commuting to work is associated with lower levels of heart attack,” says Alistair Brownlee in a university release. “The benefits of regular exercise are numerous and we support initiatives to help everyone become and stay active.”
The British Government has already recognized the potential that active commuting has to help people become more healthy, help mitigate problems like climate change, reduce traffic congestion, and lower air pollution levels. Despite this, according to 2011 U.K. Census data, in which 43 million people aged 25 to 75 were included, only 11.4% were active commuters. Moreover, most of these individuals walked to work (8.6%) rather than cycled (2.8%).
“Whilst we cannot conclusively say that active travel to work lowers the risk of heart attack, the study is indicative of such a relationship,” says lead author Chris Gale, a professor and Consultant Cardiologist with the University of Leeds. “Greater efforts by national and local policy makers to improve the uptake of cycling and walking to work are likely to be rewarded by future improvements in population-based health.
“The effect of active commuting is fairly modest when compared with the stronger determinants of cardiovascular health such as smoking, obesity, diabetes, and regular exercise. However, this study clearly suggests that exercising on the way to work has the potential to bring nationwide improvements to health and wellbeing,” he adds.
The percentage of regular active commuters varied greatly across different areas of England according to that 2011 census. In some areas, 5% were active commuters, while as many as 41.6% were actively commuting in other places. More men than women (3.8% to 1.7%) rode a bike to work, but more women walked to work than men (11.7% to 6%).
The U.K. government say they hope to double the number of citizens regularly cycling by 2025.
“Active travel has clear benefits – both for people and the environment – and this research provides further compelling evidence to encourage more people to travel by bike or on foot. To help get more people walking and cycling, we have invested £2 billion over five years,” proclaims Cycling and Walking Minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP. “On top of this, we are providing a £350 million Cycling Infrastructure Fund to increase provision for separated bike lanes on main roads, which will let thousands exercise safely as part of their daily commute.”
The study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.