UMN study: More frequent bicyclists have fewer risk factors for heart disease, diabetes

A cyclist bikes across the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. The Minneapolis skyline is in the background.

People who bicycle more often have lower risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, according to a recent UMN Study.

“This is the first study in the Minneapolis, St. Paul metro area that looks at how bicycling relates to specific diseases,” Aaron Berger, M.P.H., Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health said. “Minneapolis, St. Paul has been hailed as one of the top biking communities in the country, and biking here is backed by major public investments. This study allows us to show policymakers how those investments are being paid back to the state through healthier residents.”

Berger and UMN colleagues Xinyi Qian, Ph.D. and Mark Pereira, Ph.D., M.P.H.surveyed 1,400 bicycle commuters from the Minneapolis, St. Paul area. Respondents reported frequency of bicycle trips to work and other destinations from April to September and October to March, how often they do other kinds of exercise, and their history of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

The researchers looked for associations between average weekly transportation bicycling and a history of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, high triglycerides and diabetes.

The results showed people who took just three bicycle trips per week had 20% fewer risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

Berger and his colleagues find these results particularly interesting for several reasons. First, they examined people within a population of bicyclists and found that those who bike more frequently are achieving better health than those who ride less frequently.

Second, they measured and adjusted for the other kinds of physical activity the respondents do aside from bicycling. “Our results suggest that bicyclists don’t just appear to be healthier because they’re more physically active in general than non-bicyclists, Berger said. “Because we adjust for the other kinds of physical activity people do, our findings mean that at any given level of physical activity, people who bicycle more often have fewer risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

While this is good news for bikers, Pereira notes that policymakers and healthcare professionals should also pay attention to the findings.

“Our study findings may have broad public health implications,” Pereira said. “Indeed, most people do not live within walking distance to work or shopping centers, and therefore bicycling may play a unique role in an active lifestyle.”

Healthcare professionals often advocate for a more active lifestyle for their patients, and Berger suggests that biking could be a great method to recommend, “Once you own a bike, active transportation is very inexpensive, as well as a highly efficient way to combine healthful physical activity with time already spent commuting. For people who don’t live too far from work, biking instead of driving may not even take extra time, especially if they get stuck in traffic or have trouble parking.”

Read the full study, here.

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