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Cycling and walking are excellent forms of exercise, both of which generate significant health benefits. Choosing which one is best for commuting may come down to which is the most enjoyable. The more pleasure derived from an activity should see participation increasing. This should be a consideration before looking at cost, new kit, and technology.
We don’t recommend cycling or walking as the only way of preventing or controlling any physical or mental health conditions, however. A GP or medical practitioner should be consulted to answer any concerns before starting a programme of active travel.
Cycling v Walking
We’re starting from a strong base, as both activities are beneficial. However, there are some essential differences which will influence the satisfaction gained from taking part in them. They use different muscles, they need different safety considerations, and one exercise bears the weight of the body while the other doesn’t.
Add to these the speed of development or improvements towards goals and the choices widen. Almost none of these factors are barriers to entry, however.
Commuting by bicycle should burn more calories than walking. This insightful report by Harvard Health Publishing, neatly summarises the calorie count of a huge range of 30-minute activities, for persons across three different weights. Be aware that cycling and walking influence the calories going into the body in different ways, via the amount eaten, and fluid taken before, during and after the activity.
For Weight Loss
The body works differently to lose weight through cycling than through walking. Both are effective for weight loss, but walking – given that it is one of the first physical activities we learn – is natural and requires no training or practice.
Therefore it might be easier to be motivated to walk, although it would take longer to lose the same amount of weight than when cycling, especially if this is measured in kilos, rather than pounds.
Most studies recommend consistency of exercise to stimulate weight loss and to keep it off. Cycling is a bit more intense than walking, and it takes a little bit more time and effort to acclimatise. Choose the activity that works best. Do both if each are comfortable.
For Blood Pressure
Routine. Routine. Routine. Regular activity is an effective way to help prevent high blood pressure, or hypertension. Both walking and cycling as a form of commuting are convenient sources of routine activity, as they require less ‘dedicated’ time.
If we have to commute for work or study, the activity you choose is simply substituting the time sat on public transport, or in a vehicle. Brisk walking is preferable over slow walking to reduce blood pressure. Be aware that urban cycling could be considered more stressful than walking, and stress contributes to blood pressure levels.
For Heart Health + Cardio
Walking or cycling to work are suggestive of a link to fewer heart attacks. This University of Leeds study showed that for women who walked to work in 2011, there was a 1.7% reduction in heart attacks in the following two years. The same results were true of men who cycled to work in the same year.
The data came from the 2011 UK Census, which showed that amongst commuters engaging in active travel, walking was more popular than cycling.
Both walking and cycling will raise the resting heart rate, and there’s much to be said about exercising to the point where it’s hard to maintain a conversation.
For people sedentary at a desk sandwiched in between their commute, then walking and cycling are vital for reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
We return once more to the intensity of the activity. Choosing something that doesn’t raise the heart rate too high too quickly is vitally important. Both cycling and walking are great for this.
For Knee Pain
So far, we’ve confirmed that both cycling and walking offer health benefits to control or prevent certain conditions. For knee pain, we can begin to prise open a key difference.
Walking bears the body’s weight, and cycling does not. There’s little to no impact on the knees when cycling, apart from when riding on very chattery road surfaces. If the bicycle is set up correctly, pedal strokes will be smooth and take pressure off the knees.
Most bicycle shops can help with this. The saddle height will be the biggest influence here. The pedalling motion is a great way for the body to lubricate the joints in the legs too.
When walking, the body weight passes through the knees. Brisk walks around the block will help build and maintain the muscles around that area.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said in 2018 that any physical activity reduces the risk of diabetes. Studies they cite here have shown that active commuting is associated with a 30% decrease in the type 2 diabetes risk.
Harvard Health Publishing says that “bicycling is considered superior to walking for weight control and other obesity-related health outcomes, such as diabetes”.
Cycling vs Walking: Speed
It’s clear that with the mechanical assistance received from turning the pedals on a bicycle, the activity will be faster than walking. Cycling does not, and should not be perceived as a high-speed activity outside of the sporting arena. Good health is not related to high speed.
Professional athletes who ride quickly are subject to rigorous training programmes, and devote themselves to it. The evidence and studies we have looked at relate to commuters and the health benefits can be achieved at much lower speeds, of say 10 miles per hour. We examine if commuting by bicycle is enough exercise here.
Walking at a slow pace is beneficial, but more is to be gained from walking at a faster than comfortable pace, with exaggerated movement in the arms and a slight increase in the elevation of the head recommended. Being out of breath at the end of a walk is a good measure of achievement.
Cycling vs Walking: Same Distance
Let’s compare a five mile commute carried out at an intensity, which for the same activity, leaves a person slightly out of breath, and where the route is flat all the way. Cycling will burn more calories and work muscles harder than walking, all other things considered.
Walking will burn more fat than cycling; this is thought to be linked to walking being a weight-bearing exercise, unlike cycling. An important consideration is the ability to maintain a faster than normal walking pace for five miles as a commute.
What is clear is that walking or cycling any distance is beneficial compared to inactive travel over the same distance.
Cycling vs Walking: Same Time
The facts we have outlined are the same when we calculate time. An important variable when comparing exercise over the same time is accessibility and availability.
Put simply; walking is free, you can do it indoors and outdoors without equipment and it requires little or no preparation and maintenance. Speaking from experience, if I needed a 30 minute boost, or there was a window in my day of only half an hour, I would take the opportunity to walk rather than cycle.
What is clear is that walking or cycling over any period of time is beneficial compared to inactive travel for the same period of time.
Is Cycling Better Than Walking?
Studies suggest that, in controlled conditions, cycling is at least equal to walking. But the commutes and the streets of our cities are not laboratories. Both activities are proven to deliver better health and should enhance wellbeing. Let personal preference and enjoyment hold sway.
The good news is that health authorities across the globe recognise the importance of increasing active travel and that promoting walking and cycling are moving up the agenda in your neighbourhood. The WHO offers this support to governments and planners to help them predict how citizens’ health will improve through more active travel.
In the UK, Sustrans, a huge supporter of active travel networks, surveyed 17 urban areas to deliver this report into how cycling and walking helps the health of the nation. There has never been more interest in investing in keeping us moving around our urban areas.
It’s crucial that authorities help citizens to choose whether to cycle or walk – safety and peace of mind are vital and planning does not always mean having mixed cycle and walking lanes. We look at the dangers of cycling and walking here.
Health authorities home and abroad regularly highlight walking and cycling benefits. The principal factors which affect our life expectancy can be influenced by turning the pedals or by pounding the pavement.