Compared to other forms of urban transport, cycling may offer city dwellers greater mental and physical health benefits, according to a study published this week in the journal Environment International.
The study, which was led by researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), used data collected from more than 3,500 people participating in the EU-funded Physical Activity through Sustainable Transport Approaches (PASTA) project. They lived in seven European cities: London, Rome, Vienna, Zurich, Antwerp, Barcelona and Orebro (Sweden).
The participants were surveyed about their health and modes of transport. The health questions assessed four aspects of the participants’ mental health (anxiety, depression, loss of emotional control, and psychological well-being), as well as their vitality (energy level and fatigue) and perceived level of stress. The participants were also asked about their social relationships, such as how often they felt lonely and how much contact they had with family and/or friends.
The transport questions asked the participants how often they used a car, motorcycle, public transport, bicycle, electric bicycle or walking to get to and from places.
The study found that people who cycled not only reported better self-perceived general health, but also had lower stress levels, better mental health, greater vitality and fewer feelings of loneliness than those using other forms of transport.
Walking came in second in term of health benefits. It was associated with good self-perceived general health, greater vitality and more contact with friends and family.
Interestingly, cars were associated with one benefit: fewer feelings of loneliness.
“This result is most likely due to the fact that the study population drove very infrequently and most journeys by car were probably for social purposes, such as visiting a family member or a friend,” said Ione Avila Palencia, the study’s lead author and a researcher at ISGlobal, in a released statement.
Car use and public transit were the only transport modes that showed negative effects — poorer self-perceived general health — but these findings were not consistent across all models used for the analysis. Other results for public transport use were considered statistically “non-significant,” as were those for e-bike use. And the results for motorcycle use were deemed “inconclusive.”
Plenty of caveats
This study was observational. It shows only a correlation between cycling and better mental and physical health, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Although the researchers adjusted for confounders that can affect health, such as age, employment status and educational level, other factors — ones not adjusted for in the study — might also explain the results.
Another major limitation of the study was that it included only city dwellers.
Still, these findings don’t come out of left field. As background information in the study explains, so-called active transport — walking and cycling — has been found in other research to be associated with many health benefits, including a lower risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, and better mental well-being.
It has also been found to improve people’s perceptions of their quality of life.
“Qualitative research has suggested that choice of travel mode may affect well-being due to the fact that travelling (mainly commuting) can be perceived as a relaxing or transitional time between home and work life, which can also be about enjoying pleasant landscape, nature, and wildlife,” the study’s authors write. “Previous studies have found that cyclists perceived their work commute as relatively relaxing and exciting, have the highest commute well-being, and are the most satisfied travellers. Therefore, all the positive health effects we found could be a result of a repeated high travel satisfaction in daily life.”
The source of that satisfaction, they add, could be “because bicycling may offer independence, may be economical and pleasant, may create identity (cyclists may self-identify as ‘cyclists’), and generally those who use bicycles may cover shorter distances, so they may tend to have shorter commutes.”
“Transport is not just a matter of mobility: It also has to do with public health and the well-being of the population,” said Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, the study’s senior author and director of the Urban Planning Environment and Health Initiative at ISGlobal, in a released statement.
“Active transport, especially bicycle use, should be encouraged to improve population health and social outcomes,” he and his colleagues conclude.
FMI: An abstract of the study can be found at Environment International’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.