Sitting in traffic on your way to and from work every day has never been anyone’s idea of a good time. Turns out it’s not very good for your health, either. “There’s accumulating evidence that sedentary behavior – which includes sitting in cars as well as too much screen time – is associated with a host of adverse health effects,” says Dr. Gavin McCormack, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.
One potential solution? Trade those 4 wheels in for 2 and opt for a bike commute. Turning physical activity into a regular part of your workday schedule makes it easier to stay active and, as a result, your health, your finances and the environment can all benefit. Here's how cycling to work can make a positive impact on your wellbeing:
1. You’ll improve your physical fitness
Starting and ending your day with an active commute can enhance your overall fitness. Health Canada recommends adults get 2.5 hours of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week – and cycling to work counts, says McCormack. In addition to improving your cardiovascular fitness, a recent review by researchers in Japan and the United States found that cycling also helps increase your muscle mass and strength, especially if you’re older.
2. You’ll lower your risk of chronic diseases
The physical activity of a bike commute can help keep you healthier for longer. “Cycling is just like any type of physical activity,” says McCormack. “Regular physical activity provides general health benefits like improvements in cardiovascular health, a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, a lower risk of certain cancers, including breast and colon cancer, and healthier body weight.” Emerging research also suggests that the more you cycle, the greater the cardiovascular benefits and the lower your type 2 diabetes and colon cancer risk.
And if you swap your sedentary commute for an active cycling one, you’ll compound these health benefits. “[You’re] less sedentary, which improves health independent of physical activity,” says McCormack. “And [you’re] also gaining benefits from the physical activity itself.”
3. You’ll support your mental health
A breezy, active commute can enhance your mood. This is a benefit Montreal-based communications manager, Rebecca Galloway, noticed immediately after she began cycling 3 kilometres to and from work each day. “I always feel better when I bike,” she says. “The fresh air clears my head. A few years ago while living in Toronto, I distinctly remember whizzing by the streetcar on my bike one sweltering hot day in July. Everyone onboard looked so miserable and sweaty. I felt really happy to be on my bike that day!”
The mental-health benefits of regular physical activity go beyond boosting your mood. “Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily is enough to decrease the risk of depression,” says McCormack. “And some studies suggest physical activity can help in managing or treating depression.”
4. Your wallet will thank you for switching to cycling
You’re paying a premium for the privilege of sitting in traffic during your commute: The Canadian Automobile Association estimates it costs $0.52 per kilometre to drive a mid-size vehicle in Ontario. So if you typically drive a family sedan 10 kilometres to work, you’d spend roughly $2,600 on your commute each year. Compare that to the cost of an annual bike tune-up, which can be less than $100.
5. You’ll help protect the environment, too
All that driving isn’t just bad for you, it’s also a major source of carbon emissions in Canada. Approximately 70% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from road transportation, and the average 50-minute roundtrip Canadian commute contributes to that figure. Switching to a green commute, like cycling, decreases your carbon footprint and keeps the environment cleaner for everyone.
Ready to try a bike commute? Here's how to get started
Once you’ve got the basics – Galloway recommends a helmet, lights, annual bike tune-up and, if you’re planning to commute in the snow, winter tires – be sure to plan your route to and from work. “Google Maps will map out your bike-path options with its bike filter when you search for directions,” she says. “Some cities also offer recommended bike path maps.”
If it’s been a while since you’ve been on your bike, make sure you’re familiar with the traffic laws for cyclists in your community – use of hand signals, etc. – and practise riding near home on weekends until you feel confident and wobble-free, before you head out in rush hour. It’s also a good idea to wear a reflective vest over your clothes so you’ll be more visible to drivers and pedestrians, particularly in the rain or when early mornings are still dark.
If your employer offers a wellness program as part of its workplace health and benefits package, ask about incentives for cycling to work. “If they absorb those little maintenance costs,” Galloway says, “your commute can be totally free.”
If you live too far from work to commute by bike, consider cycling instead of driving to your nearest train, subway or bus station. And whether you bike all the way to work or just as far as the transit stop, be sure to get a good, strong bicycle lock and use it faithfully.