Bike to Work and Live Longer

A study out of New Zealand has found that those who cycle to work have a lower risk of dying. The study, a joint effort between the University of Otago, the University of Melbourne and the University of Auckland, was just published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Folks who cycled to work (also called riding a bicycle here in the states) enjoyed a 13 percent reduction in mortality during the study. Not surprisingly, the researchers, led by Dr. Caroline Shaw, Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, attributed the reduction to the health benefits of physical activity. Those who walked or took public transportation to work did not get a similar benefit. In fact, they got none.

Doesn’t seem fair, considering how much “fun” public transportation can be, but we digress.

Data was used from the New Zealand Census-Mortality Study and included 3.5 million people, making it the largest cohort study to look at the connection between how people travel to work and whether and how they die. This study links census and mortality records for New Zealanders.

The researchers followed up for three to five years after the 1996, 2001 and 2006 censuses. They asked respondents “On X date (census day,) what was the one main way you traveled to work – that is, the one you used for the greatest distance?”

Dr. Shaw said, “We studied 80 per cent of the working-age population of New Zealand over a 15-year period, so it is highly representative.”

The link between various modes of transportation, like walking, cycling and public transportation, and health outcomes is still fairly uncertain. It’s important to close the data gap, since “active transport” is being touted in New Zealand as a way of positively addressing both health and environmental issues.

The study found more than 80 per cent of people in New Zealand traveled to work by car on census day, with only five per cent walking and three per cent cycling.

“There were gender differences in mode of travel to work, with two per cent of women cycling compared with four per cent of men, but more women walking or jogging (seven per cent), compared with men (five per cent). A higher proportion of younger people cycled, walked or took public transport compared with older people.”


The data provided no information regarding the physical intensity of the commutes in question. Those who had a 200 yard commute on flat city streets were lumped in the same analytical category as those who walked five miles, up and down steep hills while being chased by dingoes. Okay, maybe there were no dingoes involved, but you get the point.

“We saw no increase in road traffic injury deaths associated with walking and cycling, although the New Zealand transport system at the time of these studies was heavily car-dominated and roads seldom made allowances for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Dr Shaw says the findings lend support for initiatives to increase the number of people commuting to work by bike.

“Increasing cycling for commuting to work in a country with low levels of cycling like New Zealand will require policies directed at both transport and urban planning, such as increasing housing density and implementing cycling networks.”

While there may not have been any discernible benefit from walking or driving to work shown in this study, Dr. Shaw believes those methods have their place.

“Walking to work has physical-activity-related health benefits other than mortality reduction — including the prevention of cardiovascular disease and diabetes — and taking public transport has the benefit of emitting less carbon.”

Ride a bike to work, save the planet. Ride a bike to work, lengthen your life.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Caroline Shaw, Tony Blakely, June Atkinson, Alistair Woodward. Is mode of transport to work associated with mortality in the working-age population? Repeated census-cohort studies in New Zealand 1996, 2001 and 2006. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2020; DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyz257

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