Arrive Healthier: Commuting to Work via Pedal Power

From the WebMD Archives

March 14, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Researchers say commuting to work on bicycles can improve strength and lower the risk of heart disease. A new study shows how much inactive, but otherwise healthy, people would benefit from pedaling to work. "The greatest health benefits are achieved when the least active individuals become moderately active," writes researcher Ingrid J. M. Hendriksen, of the Aeromedical Institute in Soesterberg, Netherlands.

"This study is in line with everything we believe," says Jody Newman, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, who reviewed the study for WebMD. "That's why we encourage more people to bike."

In the U.S., the American Heart Association (AHA) says a lack of physical activity is clearly a risk factor for heart disease. The AHA estimates are that up to 250,000 deaths per year in the U.S. -- about 12% of total deaths -- are due to a lack of regular physical activity. In contrast, Hendriksen reports that as many as 34% of the Dutch population 15 years and older is physically inactive.

One of the activities the AHA recommends is bike riding three or four times a week for 30-60 minutes for improving the fitness of the heart and lungs. Though the AHA considers bike riding a "vigorous aerobic activity," in the Dutch study, researchers purposely wanted to see if cycling at a lower intensity could be of benefit. "The intensity of commuter cycling is not so high because people do not wish to become sweaty if they are going to work," the authors write.

For the study, 87 male and 35 female office workers from two companies in Amsterdam volunteered to cycle regularly to their workplaces. They didn't exercise but were generally healthy. All were between 25 and 56 years old.

All subjects underwent exercise tests for strength, heart, and lung capacity to determine their maximum physical performance level. They were then divided into two groups. One group, dubbed "the cycling group" rode their bikes to work a minimum of three times per week for six months. The average commuting distance was almost two miles. Meanwhile, the comparison group commuted as they always had. At six months and one year, all subjects were again measured for their fitness level. At the end of the first six months, the comparison group began cycling to work as well.

After the first six months of commuter cycling, researchers found strength increased more than 10% for both men and women. While the women's lung capacity dipped slightly, the men showed a 6% increase. Though they had only cycled for six months, the comparison group's results approached those of the original cycling group by the end of the year. Hendriksen believes this illustrates that the greatest rate of fitness improvement peaks at six months and levels off thereafter.

Hendriksen believes the results are clear. "Commuter cycling at a relatively low intensity as a part of normal daily activities can increase physical performance in men and women if repeated at least three times a week with a minimal distance," she writes.

Newman says there are other advantages to be gained by getting in the biking habit. "You burn more calories when you bike since you can do it longer than other activities such as running," says Newman. "Plus it's much kinder to your body, especially your knees."

Vital Information:

  • According to a new study, commuting to work on a bicycle can improve strength and lower the risk of heart disease.
  • For people at the lowest fitness level, cycling as little as two miles to work, three times a week for six months, was effective in improving health.