Numerous studies have demonstrated the tremendous health benefits of active forms of transportation. Bicycling reduces the risk of obesity, may help control weight gain, and has positive effects on individuals’ well-being. The Federal Highway Administration and the United States Department of Transportation agree that bicycling reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. It has been found that bicycling lowers healthcare costs as well as improves the quality of life for people of all ages.
A study conducted by Bassett et al. found that “countries where active travel is most common have the lowest obesity rates, while those countries with the highest rates of car use for travel have the highest obesity rates.” The authors also note that active transportation seems to take place in older cities where residential, commercial, and civic buildings are intermingled.
As stated by Parker et al., “Bicycling for transportation or recreation is one low-cost way to improve physical activity.” To reap the maximum health benefits of bicycling, even small increases in light to moderate activity, such as daily bike rides, can produce measurable benefits among those who are least active.
Studies have shown that the health benefits of bicycling far exceed the health risks from traffic injuries. However, the “perceptions [of safety and risks] are influenced by forces that are not explicitly tied to the physical act of biking, but the context in which it occurs. Countries where people bike and feel safe while doing it, have extensive infrastructure and pro-bicycle policies and programs. Advocating for effective infrastructure is critical so that riders feel safe and are more likely to engage in bicycling.
Bicycling is so good for health that even doctors are starting to “prescribe” bicycling. Doctors at Boston Medical Center prescribe discounted bike-share memberships to qualified patients through their new Prescribe-a-Bike program. In recent years, these programs have also emerged in cities from New York, NY to Austin, TX.
Cognition, Mental Health & Well-Being Benefits
A comprehensive study conducted by Danish investigators looked at nearly 20,000 Danish children between the ages of 5 and 19 and found that “children who walk or cycle to school rather than being driven by their parents have increased power of concentration and their concentration lasted considerably longer (up to four hours) after arriving at school.”
A nationwide Canadian study explored the emotional experiences of more than 5,000 children on the trip to school and found that children who actively commute report more positive emotions than those who were driven. Catherine O’Brien, an associate professor of education at Cape Breton University, in Canada refers to this combination of happiness, well-being, and sustainability as “sustainable happiness.”
In addition, mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and stress can be improved by a 30+ minute bicycle ride. There have also been cases where individuals were able to reduce or even eliminate medication to reduce symptoms by biking a few minutes per day. Biking can improve concentration since it requires balancing, reacting quickly to the environment surrounding the individual, and decision-making. In older adults, retaining cognitive function is important to decrease the onset of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. Biking has been shown to exercise and help grow the hippocampus – the brain area that controls long-term and spatial memory. Individuals who are physically active are shown to have a larger hippocampi and perform 40% better when tested for memory.
The benefits of biking are extensive; it benefits people's health and fitness, promotes societal and community capital, provides economic benefits to the area, enhances the transportation alternatives individuals can choose, and protects the environment, just to name a few.
We are inspired by the many community champions and advocates that are bringing bicycling to the forefront and we are equally focused on the meaningful outcomes that are being realized. Do you have a bicycling initiative in your community? Would you like to initiate one? Let us hear from you!
Sources for this article can be found in Shift Into Gear®: A Bicycling Advocacy Resource.