The Health Benefits of Biking to Work
Commuting by bike can transform your body and your well-being
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."
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.