Two people cycling

Building new healthy habits - cycling

Research shows that cycling regularly reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 50% and may reduce cancer risk.

Cycling to work can improve productivity and lower stress, while creating separation between work and home life. 

If you are considering a new healthy habit, AXA Health Junior Physiologists Lauren Davenport and Anna Fountain explain why and how to make cycling a great addition to your routine.

Cycling and your health

Adding cycling into your routine is a great way to improve your physical and mental health. It doubles up as transport, so it's one of the most effective ways to get your recommended 150 minutes of weekly activity, without drastic changes to your routine. 

Let's take a look at some key health aspects relating to cycling: 

Builds cardiovascular fitness - this is important as cardiovascular fitness can help to improve blood pressure and reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, while making day to day living easier and boosting our energy levels. 

Helps core strength - cycling is ideal for strengthening a lot of areas of the body. It’s a full body cardio workout and combines strength training, as well as being low impact – so it’s easy on the joints! It's not only the legs that get a workout, cycling strengthens the whole posterior chain (so the whole back side of our body), including hamstrings, glutes and the back which is particularly good for those who have a desk job. 

Effects of cycling on mental health

Taking in your surroundings and stopping to appreciate the moment, in other words mindfulness, can easily be undertaken when cycling and can do wonders for your mental health. Try to be aware of your surroundings as you cycle around and how you are experiencing them – what do you see? What do you feel? Taking the time to do this can help reduce stress levels by up to 60%.

It’s not only the outside that can reduce stress levels and have a calming effect, exercise itself boosts positive brain chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins; as well as serotonin which can help relieve depression, often caused by low levels of this chemical.

Cycling is also something you can do solo or as a group – for those who perhaps suffer with social anxiety or don’t like gyms, cycling may be a great choice; but then has the ability to be group-based if you need the support of others. Social connection is an important part of our mental wellbeing so being able to cycle either with a dedicated group or with friends and family can be great for this, whilst maintaining social distancing as required in current circumstances.

Environmental benefits

With thousands more taking to the roads on their bikes for the morning commute, the effect on the environment can only be positive with a reduction in cars and therefore a reduction in air and noise pollution.

According to the British Heart Foundation “more than 160,000 could die in the UK over the next decade from strokes and heart attacks from air pollution.” When this is compared to the fact there are 28 million cars on the road in the UK, which is contributing to 22% of all carbon dioxide emissions, this figure seems more reasonable.

‘Cycle to Work’ scheme

The World Health Organisation recommends cycling for transport ‘whenever feasible’, as not only does it have a positive impact on health, but studies show that people who cycle to work arrive more positive, focused, and motivated while reducing the risk of an early death by up to 40%. It can also help de-stress, whilst providing a separation between work, and home. 

Many employers take part in the government cycle to work scheme which allows employees to save tax and national insurance from their bike and cycling accessories purchases. You can also spread the cost over 18 months if you wish to. This scheme is great for reducing the financial barrier with getting started and well worth exploring if your employer offers it. There are links at the bottom of this article to various different schemes available, but please do check with your employer first to find out which, if any, one they use.

Overcoming the risks

Safety can be a concern for many cyclists, but in many cases the benefits outweigh the risks, and, the risks can be minimised:

Plan your route to help avoid busy junctions or roundabouts or find cycle paths/lanes. Visit Cycling UK for a journey planner where you are able to select ‘Quietest’, ‘Balanced’ or ‘Quickest’ Route.

Take a safety course. Bikeability is a national scheme for developing skills and awareness, delivered all over the UK.

Top cycling tips and how to stay motivated

Be prepared - Make sure your bike is appropriate for use, and you have all the equipment that you might need for your journey including: appropriate clothing, a helmet, bike lights, a repair pack, and ensure you know how to ride safely. For more information visit these links: choosing the right bike for you, puncture repair, and how to perform a bike check.

Test your route - Roads are quieter on weekends and you can estimate how long your journey will take. Also use the route planner linked above to plan a ‘quiet’ route.

Facilities at work - Find out if your office has bike storage and shower facilities. Wearing active wear for your cycle and taking spare clothes to work to change into is also an option to make you more comfortable.

Find a friend - You may already know someone who regularly cycles who could help add more enjoyment and motivation. You could ask them to meet you somewhere along your route to help increase your confidence. They may also give you some tips about which route to take and which junction to avoid.

Start small - If cycling the whole distance to work seems daunting, you could take the train or drive part the way there and cycle the rest or consider cycling in a couple of times a week at first, gradually increasing your confidence. If you are a beginner, start with a few short cycles a couple of times a week, leaving rest days in between, then slowly start to increase the length of your rides.

How to stay motivated

If you find yourself losing motivation, it helps to set goals and track your progress, for example, timing how long it takes to complete your journey and seeing if you can improve on this time.

External motivation can be useful, if you have a goal of cycling to work 3 times a week and you complete it, reward yourself! Also don’t forget to remind yourself why you started cycling, whether it be for health, energy, saving money, to reduce stress, to save time, to feel good, or simply for fun! You started for a reason so keep going!

There are so many benefits to cycling. No matter what your reason, remember why you started and keep going!

References: (2020). Commuting. 

Celis-Morales et al. (2017). Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal. 2017; 357:j1456. doi:10.1136/bmj.j1456

CycleScheme. (2018). How to start cycling if it has been a while. (2020). 

Oja P, Titze S, Bauman A, de Geus B, Krenn P, Reger-Nash B, Kohlberger T. Health benefits of cycling: a systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011 Aug;21(4):496-509. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01299.x. Epub 2011 Apr 18. PMID: 21496106.