A new study has found that if New Zealanders increased their cycling to the modest levels of the 1980s, their health would improve significantly.
Commuters need not ride their cycles as in the Hayden Roulston-style medal-winning sprint in lycra, but at just a relaxed pace, to gain full health benefits.
Research fellow Dr Graeme Lindsay and colleagues studied the likely effects of shifting 5 per cent of urban light-vehicle trips of 7km or less to cycling and found savings in fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions.
They also found that more than five lives would be saved through reduced air pollution from vehicles, and if there were more bikes, the "safety-in-numbers" effect progressively reduced the cycling death rate.
But the biggest health effect would be through the reduced rate of conditions like heart attack and cancer among commuter cyclists and the kilos of body fat shed.
All that pedalling would burn up the equivalent amount of energy of 40 million cans of Coke, a potential fat loss of 675,000kg, and 116 deaths would be saved by improved health.
The calculations come from a paper prepared by Auckland University researchers for the New Zealand Transport Agency.
The agency is guided by the New Zealand Transport Strategy, whose aim is that by 2040, 30 per cent of urban trips are made by bike, on foot or other "active modes" of travel.
The paper relies on World Health Organisation estimates based on large studies, which indicate mortality from all causes was reduced by 30 per cent among regular adult commuter cyclists.
"The studies, from Denmark and China, found consistently fewer deaths than expected from cardiovascular diseases and cancers, and reported this finding could not be explained by recreational activities or other lifestyle factors," the New Zealand Herald quoted the paper as saying.
"In New Zealand, bicycles are now seldom used for commuting. Overall, bicycling makes up about 1 per cent of all trips in this country compared to 3.6 per cent in 1989/90.
"In contrast, some northern European countries have figures of 20 to 30 per cent," it stated.