Dr Clare Bailey: Cycling – healthy or high-risk?

I have a long-running dispute with my husband, Michael Mosley, about his cycling, which seems to me to be rather reckless. On a number of occasions I’ve followed him on my bike as he weaves precariously through London traffic, carving up buses and taxis. I worry for his safety. Yes, cycling is a practical and fast way to travel, but just how safe is it and what are the health benefits?

Dr Clare Bailey cycling
Maite Franchi/Folio Art

In a recent study for The British Medical Journal, researchers followed 230,000 daily commuters across the UK, comparing cycling with walking, driving and public transport. Over a ten-year period cyclists experienced almost twice the rate of injuries (seven per cent) as those using a ‘non-active’ mode of transport (only four per cent of whom suffered injuries).

When I read the first part of the study, I waved it at Michael. It pointed out that if 1,000 participants cycled to work over ten years, this would result in 26 more admissions to hospital, three of which requiring a stay of more than a week. That doesn’t sound great to me.

But when looking at the health benefits over the same ten-year period these turn out to be considerable. According to these findings, cycling meant 15 fewer cases of cancer and four fewer heart attacks compared with the non-cycling group. So the substantial exercise-related benefits do outweigh the safety risks.

Although this is good news, sadly there are still far too many accidents affecting cyclists. Most recent figures, from 2018, show that 99 cyclists were killed, 4,106 seriously injured and 13,345 slightly injured in the UK.

When looking at cycling accident statistics, I was alarmed to see that one of the biggest contributing factors to serious accidents is ‘riders wearing dark clothing’. I haven’t yet persuaded Michael to wear high-vis cycling gear, so I will need to work on that one. Another is ‘not displaying lights at night or in poor visibility’, which thankfully he does do.

Given the evident risks of cycling, the researchers concluded that the results ‘revealed an urgent need to improve safety for cyclists’.

Creating more dedicated safer routes could lead to wide-scale health improvements as it would encourage more people to cycle regularly and therefore benefit from the increased exercise.

As for my debate with Michael, I have to agree that the pros of cycling probably do outweigh the risk of injury. We both enjoy cycling and it’s a great way to get around. What’s more, it’s good for the environment. But until there is a better network of safer cycle lanes and a more bicycle- friendly infrastructure, it won’t stop me worrying about those risks.

So please, drivers, keep a watchful eye for the many people like Michael on the roads and keep up the pressure on local authorities to fill in potholes and further extend the network of safe cycling routes.

The mindful way to manage pain

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We’ve heard about mindfulness being good for mental health – but could it benefit us physically, too? According to a new study, even a brief 20-minute introduction to mindfulness was enough to help participants deal with physical pain or disturbing images when exposed. In fact, the effect was so pronounced that even when they were subjected to high heat on their forearm, their responses – including their brain scans – reacted as if they were experiencing normal temperatures.

Practising mindfulness regularly or daily encourages being in the present in order to feel calm and improve your mental state and is known to reduce anxiety and depression. The researchers were able to demonstrate that even brief training in the technique was enough to make a significant difference.

The researchers said that, ‘The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions, even without long meditation practice.’