Commuting by bike linked to better mental health – they don’t call it great ­outdoors for nothing

They don’t call it the great ­outdoors for nothing – people who get outside regularly are more resilient to mental stress than those who don’t. But it goes ­further than that.

Edinburgh researchers have shown people who cycle to work are less likely to be prescribed drugs for anxiety or depression than those who commute using other kinds of transport.

The analysis covers 380,000 people living in Scotland and the results suggest commuting by bike can reduce the risk of mental ill health.

There have been a few small studies indicating cycling to work is good for mental wellbeing but nothing this big.

Edinburgh researchers cleverly combined data for 378,253 people aged 16 to 74 from the 2011 Scottish census with NHS prescription records for the following five years.

The people included in the study lived and worked in Edinburgh or Glasgow, lived within a mile of a cycle path and weren’t taking any ­prescription medicines for mental ­ill health at the start of the study.

The results are quite striking. Researchers found a 15% reduction in prescriptions for depression or anxiety among the cycle commuters in the five years after 2011, compared with non-cyclists.

Plus, a message for all women, commuting by bike led to greater reductions in mental health ­prescriptions in them than in men. Dr Laurie Berrie of Edinburgh ­University, said: “Our study used the fact that otherwise similar people are more likely to cycle to work if they live close to a cycle path.

“Using this, it was possible to mimic a randomised controlled trial and compare the mental health of those who cycled to work to those using other modes of transport but who were otherwise comparable.”

Not that many people were using bikes. The team’s analysis reveals only around 2% of commuters in Glasgow cycle to work, with just under 5% in Edinburgh. Men were more likely than women to cycle.

The study provides further evidence of the importance of promoting cycling and investing in cycle paths to encourage more people to commute by bike, the team says.

“Our finding that this economical and sustainable method of travelling to work also enhances mental health suggests that a policy of investing in cycle paths and encouraging active commuting is likely to have wide-ranging benefits,” added Professor Chris Dibben, School of GeoSciences, Edinburgh University.

“Not only could this improve people’s mental health, it could also help reduce carbon emissions, road congestion and air pollution.”

Get on your bike!