Why cycling to work could be the fitness boost you need

Health benefits of cycling to work
Cyclists are likely to be fitter, leaner and less stressed than regular commuters

During their lifetime, Britons will spend thousands of hours commuting to and from work. Although the Covid-19 pandemic allowed many of us to work from home, a 2022 government survey suggests that the average person in England travels over 1,000 miles every year while commuting. One way to make these journeys more enjoyable – and improve your fitness in the process – is to get on two wheels.

Cyclists are likely to be fitter, leaner, less stressed and mentally more positive than road or rail commuters. They don’t pollute, they cause very little congestion, and their commuting costs are far, far less than those of drivers or public transport users. What’s more, they know exactly how long it takes to get to work.

How to start cycling to work

Cycling, especially on busy roads, can be a daunting prospect. Government research from 2017 found that 62 per cent of adults in England agreed with the statement “it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”. But if you drill down into the statistics, the casualty rate for people cycling on Britain’s roads has been on a downward trend since 2012.

Katie Legg, commercial director at Cycling UK, encourages newbies to rehearse their cycling routes to work before embarking on the real thing. “Try it out at the weekend when the routes are quieter and you don’t feel the time pressure,” she says. “See what roads and distances you initially feel comfortable with.”

She stresses that it’s not necessary to cycle to work every day. And if the commuting distance is particularly long, why not take the train some of the way and finish the last section by bike? Rental services are particularly useful for this, such as Beryl, Brompton Bike Hire, Lime, Ovo Bikes, Santander Cycles and Tier. Alternatively, many train stations have lock-ups where you can store your bike.

Chris Bennett, head of behaviour change at Sustrans, a walking and cycling charity, says dipping your toes in the water is often the catalyst you need. “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing,” he adds. “You don’t have to cycle in every day. It’s fine to be a fair-weather cyclist.”

Tom Bogdanowicz is senior policy officer at another cycling charity, the London Cycling Campaign, which operates a service called Cycle Buddies, where experienced cyclists help their more nervous counterparts build confidence, plan quiet routes to work and ensure their bikes are roadworthy.

“It’s terrific for someone who’s not totally confident,” he says. “They can ask someone to help them get to know the ropes.”

There are also plenty of websites that allow you to plan a lower-traffic route to work. Try Sustrans, CycleStreets, Citymapper or Komoot.

But how can cycling to work benefit health?

It burns calories and helps you lose weight

Of course, how many calories you burn while cycling to work depends on many factors. Your age, weight, height, and gender all come into play, as does the speed and consistency you’re riding at, and any hills you negotiate.

According to a Harvard University study, a 70kg (155lb) person burns up to 300 calories while cycling at a moderate speed for half an hour.

It’s kind to your joints

The Arthritis Foundation recommends cycling as a way of maintaining joint health. “The continuous motion that’s part of cycling is very helpful for arthritic joints,” says Joseph Garry, former medical director of the Sports Medicine Clinic at the University of Minnesota. “The more the joint moves through its full range of motion, the more synovial fluid is produced. This lubricates the joint so you move more easily the rest of the day.”

It makes you feel more positive

“Any form of exercise, particularly aerobic, releases endorphins and serotonin, helping you feel more positive,” says Katie Legg of Cycling UK. “By the time you arrive at work, there’s a natural boost of energy produced by these chemicals we all have in our bodies.”

It reduces stress

Negotiating traffic jams or wrestling with public transport at rush hour will dampen the spirits of even the hardiest commuter, while cyclists seem to be less stressed than other commuters. A Spanish study published in the British Medical Journal found that “healthy, adult bicycle commuters had lower risk of being stressed than commuters of other transport modes”.

What’s more, while you’re cycling, you’re not tempted to gaze at your phone screen. “It’s an opportunity to step away from that 24/7 cycle of news, work and interaction with other people,” says Legg. “It’s genuinely time for yourself.”

It cuts your risk of cancer and heart disease

Research from the University of Glasgow shows that cycle commuters have a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer and 46 per cent lower risk of heart disease.

Dr Jason Gill works at the university’s Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences. “Cycling all or part of the way to work was associated with substantially lower risk of adverse health outcomes,” he says.

How to turn your commute into a proper workout

It’s not rocket science: you need to go further, faster and up more hills. Sarah McMonagle, director of external affairs at Cycling UK, says: “Climbs are a great way to add intensity to your workout as they’ll really get your heart pumping. Add one or two to some of your rides and you’ll be increasing your power output. Remember that you and your thighs will really notice the weight of anything you’re carrying when propelling yourself up a hill.

“It’s a good idea to vary the terrain as well as adding distance, and ideally throw in some climbs too. Changing terrain might be trickier for urban commuters, but worth it as off-road surfaces can make you work harder. Try using parks and canal towpaths,” she says.

McMonagle says that it’s best to plan longer routes for the way home, so you don’t add stress about being late for work on top of your commute.

“Keeping track of your efforts is a great way to stay motivated as you can easily monitor your progress and gradually build up the distance of your rides and your speed. There are plenty of free apps for this, so there’s no need to spend any money. Equally, having a goal to work towards is motivational – anything from training for a charity ride to keeping up with friends who are that much fitter.”

What kind of bike, clothing and equipment do you need?

Tom Bogdanowicz of the London Cycling Campaign says your bike doesn’t need to be expensive, just in good working order. “Getting an old bicycle out of the cellar is asking for trouble,” he explains. “If you’re not an expert, get it properly serviced.”

Legg says you should always dress for the weather. “Think about a change of clothes at the other end,” she adds. You’ll also need a decent helmet, lights and lock. Adult helmets should carry an EN1078 European standard sticker, children’s helmets an EN1080 sticker. There are dozens of bike locks available, and it’s worth investing in an expensive one. Thick chains or U-locks are generally the most secure.

How cycling to work can boost productivity

Employees who commute by bike take fewer sick days. A Dutch study found that cycling faster and over longer distances ended up reducing cases of absenteeism. The study authors concluded: “Mean absenteeism in cyclists is significantly lower than in non-cyclists, even after controlling for subjective health, so cycling to work not only contributes to employee health, it may also result in a financial benefit for the employer.”

And it seems getting moving in the morning can be especially beneficial for adults in midlife and older. A study of people aged 55-80 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine discovered that “a morning bout of moderate-intensity exercise” improved memory function by boosting a certain protein in the brain after participants did 30 minutes of exercise in the morning.

Tips for getting the most from your bike commute

Employers can play a vital role in encouraging employees to cycle to work. Shower facilities, lockers, secure bike storage and places to dry clothes all help.

The UK government operates the Cycle to Work Scheme, which allows employees to hire bikes and equipment through their employers at a reduced rate and, at the end of the hire period, buy the bike cheaply.

Cycling UK, meanwhile, runs a “Cycle Friendly Employer” accreditation scheme for employers offering facilities for employees who bike to work.

“Talk to your employer,” Legg suggests. “Just a few practical investments will make that journey infinitely more enjoyable and practical for you.”


Can riding an e-bike actually make you healthier?

Read more