A study has found that people who walk or cycle to work are at a reduced risk of early death compared with those who travel in by car.
The findings, based on a study of more than 300,000 commuters in England and Wales over a period of 25 years, come as the government urges Britons to walk, cycle or drive to work to take the pressure off public transport capacity.
Researchers found that combining exercise with travelling to work may reduce the risk of early death from heart disease and cancer – limiting the long-term health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge used data from the ONS Longitudinal Study of England and Wales, which links data from multiple sources including the Census of England and Wales and registrations of death and cancer diagnoses.
They found that compared with those travelling by car, people who cycled to work had an overall 20% reduced rate of early death.
When the figures were broken down, cyclists were found to have a 24% reduced rate of death from heart disease, a 16% reduced rate of death from cancer and an 11% reduced rate of a cancer diagnosis, compared with drivers.
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Walking to work was associated with a 7% reduced rate in cancer diagnosis compared with driving, but the team said associations between walking and other outcomes, such as rates of death from cancer and heart disease, were less certain.
Rail commuters had a 10% reduced rate of early death, a 20% reduced rate of death from cardiovascular disease and a 12% reduced rate of cancer diagnosis, compared with drivers.
This is probably due to them walking or cycling to transit points, the researchers said, adding that rail commuters also tend to be more affluent and less likely to have other underlying conditions.
Dr Richard Patterson, from the University of Cambridge's MRC Epidemiology Unit, who led the research, 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.”
The data, published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, revealed 66% of those studied drove to work, 19% used public transport, 12% travelled on foot and 3% commuted on cycle.
Men were more likely than women to drive or cycle to work, but were less likely to use public transport or walk, the team said.
The research did not take into account the differences in the study participants' additional physical activities, diet, history of smoking and underlying health conditions, but the team said their findings are compatible with evidence from other studies.
Senior study author Dr Anthony Laverty, from Imperial College London's School of Public Health, said: "It's great to see that the government is providing additional investment to encourage more walking and cycling during the post-lockdown period.
"While not everyone is able to walk or cycle to work, the government can support people to ensure that beneficial shifts in travel behaviour are sustained in the longer term."