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A major study tracking more than 300,000 commuters has revealed that cycling to work can cut the risk of dying early from illnesses such as heart disease and cancer by up to 24 per cent.

Dr Richard Patterson from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the research, hailed post-lockdown plans to dramatically increase numbers of cycle lanes and walking routes into city centres.

He said the study demonstrates a large increase in active commutes would have significant positive health impacts nationwide.

The conclusive peer-reviewed report, published today in The Lancet Planetary Health journal by researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, used Census data to track a cohort of commuters in England and Wales between 1991 and 2016.

It found that those who cycled to work saw an overall 20 per cent reduced rate of early death during the period, compared with drivers.

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They saw a 24 per cent reduced rate of death from cardiovascular disease – which includes heart attack and stroke – a 16 per cent reduced rate of death from cancer, and an 11 per cent reduced rate of a cancer diagnosis.

Walking to work showed a less significant impact than cycling, but walking commuters studied still experienced a seven per cent lower rate of cancer diagnosis than their driver commuter peers.

The data for the study revealed 66 per cent of people drove to work, 19 per cent used public transport, 12 per cent walked and 3 per cent cycled.

It also showed even taking the train rather than getting behind the wheel cuts the risk of early death by 10 per cent.

Authors said the health benefits to rail travel were not due to the number of accidents encountered on the road, but were likely because rail users walk to and from station at each end of their journey.

Londoners are currently being urged to avoid public transport as part of the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, and to cycle or walk to work instead.

Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new London Streetspace programme includes the rapid construction of a strategic cycling network, using temporary materials, including new routes aimed at reducing crowding on underground and train lines and on busy bus corridors.

Working with London’s boroughs, the programme will rapidly transform London’s streets to accommodate a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking as lockdown restrictions are eased.

Dr Patterson said: “As large numbers of people begin to return to work as the COVID-19 lockdown eases, it is a good time for everyone to rethink their transport choices. With severe and prolonged limits in public transport capacity likely, switching to private car use would be disastrous for our health and the environment. Encouraging more people to walk and cycle will help limit the longer-term consequences of the pandemic.”

Co-author Dr Anthony Laverty, senior author from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, added: “It’s great to see that the government is providing additional investment to encourage more walking and cycling during the post-lockdown period.”

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