Commuter cycling: does it help your health?

In an earlier post I explained that recently I have been making more individual cycling trips than at any point in the last thirty-odd years. I also commented, when comparing the subjective experiences of cycling and walking, that cycling offers a wider range of physical intensity.

Even though most of my recent cycle trips have been short distances ( < 5 miles) it has been very striking that even a short, slow, flat, offroad journey will involve bursts of energy that you simply do not get in a walking trip. This is partly because nowhere, nowhere is completely flat. But you don’t really remember it. Thirty yards up a bit of slope, enough to make you pant for a few seconds? Forgotten as soon as its over. Accelerating to get past a bus? You do it without thinking or bothering. And these events occur even in the trips of the gentlest, the slowest, the most pootlesome of bike riders.

This struck me as something where – viewed purely as everyday transport – cycling really does win over walking. Raising physical intensity in a walking trip is difficult. With effort, you can just about make walking as hard as a rather gentle bike ride. I had lately taken to breaking into a minimalist jog for parts of walking journeys and of course Bristol is famously hilly – but I’m both temperamentally impatient and interested in experimenting with this kind of thing and I have to admit that truly vigorous utility walking is never going to be that popular.

So I was very pleased to see my speculation confirmed at Commuter cycling: does it help your health? a talk by Professor Ashley Cooper [note, I’ll change the link to the actual powerpoints, once they’re up on the Bristol Uni website]. The talk was one of the events of the Bristol Cycle Festival

There is now a ton of evidence about the benefits of what has been given the jargon term “moderate to vigorous physical activity” and Prof Cooper sketched out some of the seminal studies (the London bus crews for instance – conductors and drivers provided a really neat pair of otherwise similar groups which differ consistently in their workplace levels of physical activity). However he went on to say that there is “little hard evidence” of the specific benefits of cycling – but there is some. (By “hard” he meant well-designed academic studies – there is of course masses of personal experience – anecdotal evidence is not necessarily trivial in the sense that it can point at a real phenomenon, but the proper studies do have to be done to test our intuitions).

Sorry, I’m digressing – I made fairly extensive notes and I don’t wish to just transcribe them. To get back to the point I started with, Professor Cooper said plainly that the available evidence shows that:

“cycling gives you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of health benefits [than walking]”

And that benefit is thought to be because of the higher overall intensity of cycling:

“it is intensity which gives you the health benefits”

The research into physical activity has always shown that intensity is important. “Intensity” (how much it raises your heart rate) is to be counterpoised to “duration” and the current thinking is moving towards saying that “high intensity + short duration” is better than “low intensity + long duration”. I see that my notes contain the line “for increases in life expectancy – duration does not matter”.

Not sure how accurate that note is – it does sound pretty radical. It’s interesting to me how knowledge about exercise and health has changed over the years. At one point it seemed to be thought that beneficial exercise had to be both quite intense and of fairly lengthy duration. Decades ago I recall being told that going for a five- or ten-minute run couldn’t possibly do me any good at all – and as for walking hah! Well I’ve gradually watched the advice change and now it seems that almost any exercise at all will do you some good. This is great news. (And, incidentally, a nice example of the way the way that science changes its picture of the world as more evidence comes in). Any exercise will do you some good, but (in a broad way) greater intensity gives better results.

A complication

My earlier post on the epidemic of sloth was just a little disingenuous because I omitted an important caveat. The report I referred to was clear that physical activity wasn’t quite the whole story. The other half of the picture is the amount of sedentary time – if moving is a plus then sitting is a minus. You could take a good dose of exercise and then wipe out the benefit by sitting at a desk for the rest of the day. This was completely new to me; Prof Cooper said that it is new to everyone because the conclusions are recent.

The importance of decreasing the amount of time you spend sitting inertly on your bum is yet another plus for cycling – a “double hit” in Prof Cooper’s words – because the time on the bike is time spent not lazing about. You might be sitting on a saddle but you are active. It’s an even bigger plus for walking because walking journeys take so long (I’m currently at the stage where I arrive half an hour early for everything because I’m still applying walking calculations and can’t quite believe how much faster the bike is).

This caveat about taking care not to sit around for most of the day is important. The finding that, on the whole, intensity is more important than duration can be easily misrepresented. The BBC Horizon documentary the truth about exercise (the full versions on youtube have unfortunately been taken down) did not exactly misrepresent things and it did spend plenty of time discussing the importance of non-sedentariness but the documentary gave a misleading overall impression. Nevertheless it was good enough to be worth looking out for repeats, if you haven’t already seen it.

The structure of the documentary resulted in a foregrounding of some research findings about capsule exercise. The findings are that it is possible to get the full benefits of exercise from a very small amount of maximum intensity exercise. In the documentary we see the presenter (the very affable, and medically trained, Michael Mosley) following a programme where he does three twenty-second intervals on an exercise bike. The idea is that you really have to go absolutely flat out – you need to be gasping and groaning at the end – but you only need do this minute’s-worth three times a week. This is quite staggering I’d agree. Unfortunately the documentary did not make it clear enough that this needs to be done in conjunction with reducing the amount of the sitting down. The programme was not structured in such a way that the central argument about exercise came through. Although all the pieces were in place it succumbed to the gosh-wow factor (perhaps from a sad lack of confidence in the mental acuity of its audience?) and this resulted in a degree of confusion. (Horizon seems to do this rather a lot).

Incidentally Prof Cooper remarked that when he presents to audiences of fellow academics and practitioners in the area of physical activity, there are always a bunch of people at the back who have deliberately chosen to stand rather than sit. That seems perhaps a little ostentatious to me, but in case you’re wondering, I’m writing this post standing at my desk, with the laptop perched on a bunch of boxfiles and I’ve been doing part of my desk work this way for a few months now.


This all seems plain enough to me. If you get to work on a bike you get some reasonably intense exercise every week day. Furthermore, the time it takes to get to work is not time spent immobile in a chair. Double hit.

This knowledge is not a big secret. “The government has been told about this. It does know … it’s up to them to do something about it” said Prof Cooper. We’ve been so battered by half-baked US rhetoric about “big government” that perhaps it needs spelling out: the government spends my taxes to do things that I cannot do on my own by means of my own individual choices. I damn well want my taxes to purchase public health by means of doing what is necessary to foster walking and cycling. Increased public health means an increase in the amount of choice you have in your individual pursuit of satisfaction. It leads to more freedom.


Walking and cycling compared

“What do you call a jogger with bad knees?”
“A cyclist”

Here’s some personal stuff – but it is relevant.

Despite the name, this was never intended to be a dedicated cycling blog. This was partly because I quite like buses (poor things, hardly anyone has a good word to say for them, but actually, you know, they’re great!) but mainly because I really do fly a flag for walking – not leisure walking, not driving to somewhere picturesque and then going for “a walk” – but just everyday getting about on your own two unassisted feet. The original working title of the blog was “no mean feet”.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, I used to be a rather heroic urban walker, but it is no longer the pleasure that it used to be. Since I wrote that post – in fact in the last two months – things have noticeably slumped. Yes, I need to get over myself, I know. I can walk for many miles if necessary. I stride. I’m brisk. I don’t limp (yet?). What else do I expect at the age of 54? (but dammit, this particular manifestation of the mid-fifties doesn’t happen to everyone – some people are fell-runners in their 60’s! Why me of all people? I really didn’t expect this at all). Yes, yes, I’ll be all right in a minute … but … but …the horrible fact is that a good deal of the physical pleasure has gone out of walking.

Walking is great. You get all the benefits of cycling yet it feels somehow freer because there isn’t this damn machine that you have to lug around with you, a machine that requires various kinds of coddling and fussing over and fretting about.

If you have the time to do it, walking is just fantastic. Whole books have been written about the wonderfulness of walking, its meditative aspects and its properties as a thought stimulant (I’d put John Hillaby right up there with Richard Ballantine as an inspiration). And I loved the fact that it was just a little bit eccentric to be a serious urban walker – and now that Will Self fellow gets to bang on about it and I can’t say “me too!”. A small part of my identity has just flaked off.

At its best, urban walking feels strangely transparent and effortless. It feels rather like this:

balloon over clifton bridge

The problem is that it has stopped feeling like that for me. And it never will be quite like that again.

Well, there’s an obvious solution isn’t there?

Yes indeedy. This is how cycling feels:

bleriot monoplane

It offers slightly different pleasures to walking. If feels powerful. It feels skilful. You get a wider range of physical intensity. You can go fast. You are reminded of O-level physics in a really intimate way. Fiddling with machinery is a whole daft joy in itself.

Over the last month I have done far more cycling, counted in terms of individual trips, than I have done in … well, since some time in the early 1980’s. I shall have lots to say about this shortly. Just one more thing for now though.

I do genuinely like the physical process of walking, that is true. Yet I do wonder, if I’m honest, if part of the reason I chose, for those many years, to walk rather than cycle, was that cycling felt too much trouble. That word ‘trouble’ is key. I knew, from my own experience, that cycling can be done even on the roads as they are. I knew, because I had done it in the past, that the whole vehicular-cycling thing works and will (largely) keep you safe. But it takes an effort, and the effort needed is far more mental than physical. Once you’ve got into the swing of it, it’s ok and you don’t really think about it and it seems worth doing. But once you stop for a while, it’s so difficult to get back into it as you see what a scary, stinking, unfair mess we’ve made of our urban transport system.

[Footnote. Unless otherwise attributed, all photos on this blog were taken by myself. I scraped the two pictures in this post off the web – and I didn’t find an attribution. Sorry]

Bristol (introduction #5)

At the end of 2006 I moved from London to Bristol. Bristol is a very walkable city, but that didn’t do me any good, because in 2007 my legs started to seize up.

That’s sounds overdramatic, though it is actually what happened: I couldn’t stand on tiptoe, I couldn’t kneel down, I had to think very carefully before crouching. Attempts to jog resulted in something sharp and stabbing happening in my ankle, my knees were starting to grumble alarmingly, a sort of ‘clunk’ had appeared in one of my hips and for the first time in my life I experienced an ache in my lower back. Most of all, my feet hurt all the time. They ached from heel to ball and I couldn’t flex my arches. I’d go to bed with my feet hurting and I’d wake up with them hurting. I had experienced this latter symptom before and I’d solved it by walking barefoot as much as possible, but this no longer worked. Not only did my feet hurt in an achy, draining sort of way there was actual pain-type pain. Genuine fiery pain in my big toe joints. At its worst it was never quite bad enough to keep me awake at night, but it was bad enough that I thought that it might do so.

Without walking I felt bereft. It hadn’t occurred to me that exercise mattered to me – to say so seemed unbelievably pretentious, I mean, it’s not as if I went in for serious sport, that it was any part of my identity or anything. I’ve never done a long-distance footpath (there’s still time). I’m not one of those people who says “oh I just hate to be in an office all day”. I mean, here I am right now, voluntarily sitting at a computer. Yet it turns out that physical activity does matter to me – and it has to be outdoors. Gyms (and I have used them in the past) are good for specific purposes but a treadmill does not give me joy. What I left out of my earlier account of cycling in the London in the early eighties was that it coincided with coming out of a period of depression. Exercise has many physical benefits, but I need it for mental health. I curdle if I don’t keep moving and I need to feel the rain and the wind.

So I saw an excellent physio at the University of Bristol sports centre, who told me that my muscles were incredibly stiff, ‘sports-massage’d’ my legs (you really know when you’ve had this done) and gave me a load of stretching and balance exercises, which I still do because they help. I am now returned to my former bendiness – more or less – with no disturbing clunks or muttering knees. The pain in my toes has calmed down to a perfectly bearable stiffness. The physio also referred me to a podiatrist on the suspicion that I had something called “wear and tear damage” in my feet. The pod grinned enormously while bending my toes and said “Oooh yes, definite arthritic changes there”, but the verdict is actually not that bad. Things will only get worse slowly, and my woes are quite mild, really. Yes, they are, and I’m very grateful.

Yawn. Nothing more boring than someone else talking about their health.

But this is relevant because the bottom line remains that yomping aorund nice muddy hills is one thing but I just can’t pound the urban pavement in the manner or to the extent that I used to. Really, I have to exchange some of my walking for cycling.

Why is that hard? I used to love cycling around London. What exactly is the problem and what can be done about it?

Hardcore walking (introduction #4)

“I walked everywhere”. Yes, pretty much. At one point I even started running to work, though just as I started to actually enjoy it, my ankle started giving me grief and I went back to walking. My maximum commute time was for a temp job south of the river – it took me about an hour and twenty minutes to get there, I sometimes got the tube home, but not always. For another job I used to walk to Islington and at the end of the day walk to a martial arts class in Bloomsbury. For many years I did between one and three hours walking every day. Often at weekends I’d read a review of an interesting book in the Sunday papers and then walk down from Kentish town to the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones to buy a copy. When I had spare time, rather than popping out to nearby Kentish town high street for some minor item of shopping, I’d walk up to Hampstead instead, so as to have the pleasure of shlepping over the Heath.

I like walking. It’s great. Very unpretentious, doesn’t need a ton of kit and you see more than you do on the bike. However, as the distances increase, in order for it to be a viable mode of transport you have to be brisk, so issues of sweatiness start to arise. Changes of clothes, special footwear and assorted carrying equipment start to be incorporated – it starts to become more like cycling in fact.