Cycle to work? Here’s why mixing up your route could be better for your health

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Moya Crockett
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New research suggests that making this simple tweak to your regular cycle route will reduce your exposure to harmful pollutants.  

If you cycle to work, you probably don’t need us to tell us how good it is for you. In all likelihood, you’ve already tried to convince all your friends to ditch the crush and stress of public transport – or the traffic jams endured in their car – for the freedom and cost-effectiveness of two wheels.

There is plenty of evidence to back up the physical and mental health benefits of doing your daily commute by bike. One 2017 study by researchers at Concordia University in Montreal found that cycling to work can help reduce stress and improve work performance throughout the day. The same year, research by the University of Glasgow indicated that those who commute by bike are significantly less likely to develop heart disease and cancer than those who commute by driving or public transport.

But unfortunately, because life is never simple, cycling to work can also pose health risks – particularly if you live in a major city. First of all, there’s the obvious danger of being hit by another vehicle. While cycling deaths are relatively rare, some experts believe that women are more vulnerable to being hit by lorries than men. One internal report for Transport for London in 2007 concluded that women are more likely to be killed by heavy goods vehicles, or HGVs, because they tend to obey red lights and wait in the driver’s blind spot.

And then there’s the fact of pollution. Scientists believe that cyclists who regularly travel along busy city routes are exposed to potentially harmful levels of black carbon, which is associated with health problems including respiratory and cardiovascular disease. But according to new research, there is a simple way to reduce your exposure to pollutants while commuting to and from work by bike. 

Woman cycling

Scientists at the University of Surrey’s Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) have found that cyclists in London who take a different route back home in the evening could reduce the amount of pollution they breathe in from vehicles.

In a study published by the Journal of Transport Geography, they found that Londoners who cycled on busy main routes in the morning, and then took a more leisurely way home after work – on alternative routes featuring parks, waterways and other urban greenery – would significantly cut their exposure to black carbon.

The researchers recommend this strategy, rather than the other way around (taking the greener route to work and the more traffic-heavy route in the evening), because their study showed that cyclists who took the main route home during the evening commute were exposed to more pollutants than those who biked the same route in the morning.

The research was conducted in collaboration with the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil and the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Similar experiments were also carried out in Sao Paolo and Rotterdam, although it was the London study’s results that proved most striking. 


Professor Prashant Kumar, director of GCARE at the University of Surrey, said that the study “provides further evidence that cyclists should plan alternative routes during specific times. A slower, cleaner route home could make a dramatic impact on your exposure to harmful black carbon.”

This isn’t the first piece of research to highlight the positive effects of adjusting your commute to take you through natural spaces. In 2018, a major study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found that commuters who travel through natural environments – including city parks, tree-lined streets or canal walks – on a daily basis reported better mental health than those who didn’t. This correlation was seen even more strongly among people who engaged in ‘active’ commuting, such as walking or cycling.

So if you cycle to and from work, consider adjusting your route home to include quieter streets and a little bit of nature. Your health – both mental and physical – will thank you for it.

Images: Getty Images