The Health Benefits of Biking to Work

Commuting by bike can transform your body and your well-being

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It’s Bike to Work week—the perfect time to try making your way to work on two wheels. But cycling to work is worth considering all throughout the year: Commuting by bike is cheaper and healthier than alternatives, says Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists.

“Survey after survey says that the happiest commuters are bike commuters,” he says. “You’ll notice a new shop that’s opened, a new place to eat—it’s a really fun way to get to know your community."

More on Cycling

And in the past couple of decades, people have taken notice. In 2017—the most recent year for which there’s available information from the American Community Survey—there were more than 836,000 bike commuters, nearly 70 percent more than in 2000. The number of bike commuters peaked in 2014 and has slightly dipped since then, but cities that have been prioritizing making biking safer and more accessible are still seeing their rider population rise, according to McLeod.

Taking steps to increase the popularity of cycling is worth the effort, says Jason Gill, Ph.D., a professor of cardiometabolic health at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. In places that have made cycling easier and safer, Gill says, there have been dramatic improvements to human health and major cost savings in healthcare.

“There is evidence that the amount of cycling done in the Netherlands has added more than half a year to Dutch national life expectancy, and has led to billions of dollars in economic benefit,” he says.

Benefits of Biking

In a 2017 study published in the medical journal The BMJ, Gill and colleagues looked at data that followed more than 263,000 people in the U.K. for approximately five years to see how their means of commuting affected their health.

They found that people who commuted by bike—including people who bike only part of the way to work, taking an alternative like a train for the other part—had lower risk for various cancers and cardiovascular disease, and were less likely to die during the study period.

These health benefits outweigh risk factors like exposure to air pollution or accidents, says Gill—something other research affirms.

In large part, these benefits are likely due to the fact that bike commuting is an excellent way to meet physical activity guidelines, Gill says. In the U.S., exercise guidelines call for adults to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (plus at least two days of strength-training exercise). Only about half of adults meet aerobic exercise guidelines, but a 30-minute bike ride (15 minutes each way) five days a week at a casual pace is enough to meet those recommendations.

Cycling also comes with significant benefits for mental health and well-being. A recent study found that putting older volunteers who don’t regularly cycle on both regular bikes and e-bikes and asking them to ride for at least 30 minutes three times a week for eight weeks provided significant boosts to cognitive function and overall well-being. Interestingly, the e-bike riders improved even more than regular cyclists on cognitive processing and well-being measures, perhaps because they spent more time outside riding.

Tips for Riding Safely

If all of that is enough to convince you to give cycling to work a try, here are some useful tips from McLeod, Gill, and CR’s bike helmet experts.

  1. Make sure your bike is in good shape, especially if you haven’t ridden for a while, McLeod says. Swing by a local bike shop or place like REI, where you can get a tuneup and top off the air in your tires if you don’t have a pump.
  2. Wear a helmet. Helmet-wearing is associated with an almost 70 percent lower risk of serious head injury in a crash. You need to consider cost, fit, and comfort when choosing a helmet, because you want to make sure you get something you’ll wear whenever you ride, says Peter Anzalone, senior test project leader for bike helmets at CR. It’s worth looking into a helmet with technology designed to reduce concussion risk if you can find one in your budget.
  3. Find a safe route to work. If you want to ride to work regularly and a bikeable route is an option, you could try first doing the commute on a weekend day when there’s less traffic and less pressure to arrive by a certain time, McLeod says. That gives you time to find alternative routes if any spots feel problematic.
  4. Ride in the street, and be alert. Cyclists should ride on the road, ideally in a bike lane if there is one. In many places, it’s not legal for adult cyclists to ride on the sidewalk, and cars pulling out of driveways are often not ready to stop for a cyclist who is on the sidewalk. Always be extremely respectful of and on the lookout for pedestrians, McLeod says.
  5. Communicate with pedestrians and vehicles. It’s helpful and sometimes legally required for cyclists to have a bell to alert people in their path. Gill suggests using lights on your bike at all hours to help ensure that vehicles can see you. You should also signal your turns and stops if you can. Rules vary by state, but you can usually stick out your right arm for a right turn or left arm for a left turn. Still, McLeod says that you should prioritize maintaining control of your bike over signaling, so practice beforehand so that it feels comfortable.
  6. Take it slow. “It’s not a race to work,” McLeod says. You want to take your time so that you arrive safely—advice that applies to car drivers just as much as cyclists.

Here are three bike helmets that are recommended by CR and receive top marks in impact absorption. For more, check out our bike helmet buying guide and our step-by-step guide to make sure that your helmet fits correctly.

Inside CR’s Bicycle Helmet Test Lab

On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, Consumer Reports expert John Galeotafiore demonstrates to host Jack Rico how CR tests bike helmets and the correct way cyclists should fit and wear an appropriate helmet.

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).