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Study: Commuting on foot or by bike may reduce heart attack risk

Study from University of Leeds is co-authored by Olympic triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee

A national study co-authored by Olympic medal-winning triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee has found that walking or cycling to work reduces the risk of heart attacks.

The research, led by the University of Leeds where the pair studied, is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology and underlines the health benefits of active travel.

Researchers analysed 2011 UK Census data, which included 43 million people aged 25-74 years employed in England, of whom 8.6 per cent said that walking was their main mode of travelling to work, while 2.8 per cent cycled.

Among the findings were that in places where active commutes were more common in 2011, the incidence of heart attacks among both men and women fell during the following two years.

After adjusting for major risk factors associated with heart disease – lack of exercise, being overweight, smoking and diabetes – active commutes were found to have produced health benefits in some cases.

For example, both women who walked to work and men who cycled to work were found to have a 1.7 per cent reduction in heart attacks the following year.

Two-time Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee, who in August was appointed Leeds’ first active travel ambassador, said: “Our study at the University of Leeds shows that exercise as a means of commuting to work is associated with lower levels of heart attack.

“The benefits of regular exercise are numerous and we support initiatives to help everyone become and stay active.”

Lead author Professor Chris Gale, Consultant Cardiologist, from the University of Leeds’ Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, said: “Whilst we cannot conclusively say that active travel to work lowers the risk of heart attack, the study is indicative of such a relationship.

“Greater efforts by national and local policy makers to improve the uptake of cycling and walking to work are likely to be rewarded by future improvements in population-based health.

“The effect of active commuting is fairly modest when compared with the stronger determinants of cardiovascular health such as smoking, obesity, diabetes, and regular exercise. However, this study clearly suggests that exercising on the way to work has the potential to bring nationwide improvements to health and wellbeing.”

The 2011 Census highlighted big differences in active travel patterns between local authority areas, and between men and women.

Within England, the proportion of people walking or cycling to work ranged from as little as 5 per cent to as much as 41.6 per cent.

At 3.8 per cent compared to 1.7 per cent, men were more than twice as likely as women to cycle to work, but the roles were reversed when it came to walking, with 11.7 per cent of women doing so compared with 6.0 per cent of men.

In its manifesto ahead of securing an 80-seat majority at last week’s general election, the Conservative Party pledged £350 million for cycling in England over the next five years – equivalent to less than £1.20 per person per year, with Cycling UK saying it is “alarmed” at the cut in funding.

Alistair Brownlee said: “I think it’s so important that we encourage people to travel as actively as they can. It benefits their health, their psychology, as well as helping the environment.

“We need to see vast improvements in cycling and walking infrastructure to help make people more confident in their routes, and encourage them away from relying on private cars.”

Professor Metin Avkiran, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation commented: “Finding time to exercise can be tricky given our increasingly busy and often sedentary lives. But exercising doesn’t have to involve a pricey gym membership or hours spent on a treadmill.

“Upgrading your commute – by swapping the gas pedal for a bike pedal – is a great way to get your heart pumping on a daily basis. If that’s not an option, parking a few streets away or getting off the bus a few stops early can help pave the way to a longer, healthier life.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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