Research and Enterprise

Cycle your way to a better work day!

Thursday 6 August is Cycle to Work Day 2020. As we begin to return to the daily commute – or continue to work from home – many of us may be looking to take up or get back into cycling. But how can we motivate ourselves to swap four wheels for two? And how could the change improve our work lives?  Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity & Health, explains in this blog post.

A bike on a country path

This Thursday is ‘Cycle to Work’ day. What does that have to do with you? Why I am I drawing your attention to it? As COVID unfolds into its next-new scenario, more people are returning to work, albeit under different conditions to pre-lockdown.

This blog post will help those interested in cycling to work more often. It is not written to persuade naysayers. Nor is it focusing on individuals to justify continued under-investment in cycling-related infrastructure. In the behaviour change parlance, it is a nudge, which means preaching to the ‘willing but uncommitted.’

Having a day dedicated to this is a powerful nudge in its own right. In a single event, it aims to address the main barriers affecting large numbers of people. It is also part of creating an ‘easy’ context across the while country.

Obviously, this is wider than the local-level contexts of our specific workplaces. For many, having a point when it is legitimate to try out something new is very helpful. It refashions the vague ‘I mustsomeday …’ into the firmer ‘I start on Monday’.

Dedicated days help to create social momentum around a new behaviour. They allow individuals to try out the new options within the context of many others doing the same thing. This helps address the no 1 concern of most adults in any given scenario; how will people judge me as I do this?

If having a dedicated day for commuter cycling works for you, how else might you use that approach? Doing a pension check, revising your savings approach, booking vaccinations? You get the idea.

Two people riding biked along a road


Central to my aspiration to create a nudge, it will help to know what a nudge is. Simply, it is anything that makes it easy to do something we want, but don’t always achieve. From here you can see that nudging is a downhill (not an uphill) business. So, I will offer only easy - few are always simple! - suggestions from here on.

NUDGE RULE 1: Only do what you want

Only choose options you refuse to contest - options we contest soon stop being easy. Then, as circumstances unfold, keep re-building your context so the key behaviour stays easy.

A bicycle road marking with leaves on the ground


The EAST acronym can be helpful; Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely. A range of factors are needed to ensure that attention does not revert to rival behaviours. When your approach to cycling meets all these criteria you are more likely to stick with it. The factors are explained here:

  • Make it EASY – Reduce effort in start-up steps and choices. Actions need to be simple and (relatively) effortless. Build on what already helps;


  • Make it ATTRACTIVE – Focus on personal advantages. Then look at social gains. When gains occur link them to the new changes;


  • Make it SOCIAL – Harness positive social ‘pressure’ for new options. Talk to others who support you and the new options;


  • Make it TIMELY – Cues and prompts need to do their work at the right time of day and when you are most responsive.

Make a plan according to each element of the framework.

At the same time, pay attention to the phrase ‘Make it’ (it appears four times!) Design powerfully and carefully. Build things that will work for you and that suit your values, interests and pre-existing routines.

Some find it easier to start by removing features that cause unhelpful friction. For example, putting the car out of eyesight in the morning might help remove the most powerful friction acting on committed drivers.

A bike propped up against a wall

NUDGE RULE 3: Build your Three Layers of Competence

Now focus on developing competence. This is because competence drives motivation, rather than the other way around.

Become a competent rider, learn to manage traffic, deal with hills and so on. Practice. Learn a number of routes (e.g., flatter routes, quicker journeys), how to fix flat tyres and the laws affecting you as a cyclist. These address physical competence.

Social competence is needed to associate more with friends-in-waiting who also cycle. It will also help deal with naysayers who may shake your confidence/commitment too. They will have something to say about your cycle gear, ‘the bother’ and a million other things. Know who are the supportive people; share time with them.

Then there’s environmental competence; this relates to routes (cycle-friendly features, traffic bottlenecks) and the ‘rules’ of work. These can be (un)spoken and symbolic (‘Where are the showers or the bike sheds?’) The more supportive they are of cycling, the better it will be for you.

Trouble shooting

Assuming that a daily commitment may be too much for many, scale back. Consider making a commitment for a single day per week. For example, in August 2020, there are four Mondays. Could you cycle on those four days? Still too much? Try cycling into work on one Monday, and home the next. Whatever commitment you make, you will gain from every cycle ride, because cycling activates many positive fast-response mechanisms.

Getting prepared the night before cycling the morning commute is wise too. That helps to make the morning routine more, er… routine.

So, it may also help to have your rucksack packed, kit ready and bicycle at the front door - all things that can be prepared the night before cycling - and give your car keys to someone else. It will also help if you must brush against these positive cues during your routine before leaving the house for work.

A test. How confident (1-10 where 10 is ‘very confident’) that your plan will work?  If it’s not 8 or more, do more planning!

A rider holding onto the handlebar of an electric bike

NUDGE RULE 4: Focus on Benefits

What might you expect will happen to you at work having cycled there? Importantly, workplace performance can be predicted. Three key features explain between 40% and 65% of the difference in financial performance of white collar employees; Energy (10-20%), Exploration (15%) and Engagement (30%).

The exercise paradox

Cycling evidences the ‘exercise paradox’; expressing energy creates even more of it. This relates to our essential processes. Biologically, humans adapt to the demands imposed on us. And, when specific locations, venues or activities become associated with reward, they are remembered easily. In this case, work brings social and economic rewards so our capacity to memory improves in the short-term having exercised getting there.

This process also plays out for how we get to work and how we perform in the first few hours there. Here we can see an additional way to understand the T (for Timing) in the EAST framework. Active commuting improves short-term emotional control – effects last just 3-4 hours. Given that physical activity has a repeated acute effect, cycling to work can be ‘topped up’ by another walk at lunch time.

A red bike with a basket parked in a field

Research in action

It may be helpful to have some clear figures on the scale of the benefit that derives from being active on a working day versus on days when we do no physical activity (PA).

Uniquely, this work compared individuals with themselves - on days when they were active and days when they weren’t - most previous studies compared active with inactive people. In over 200 white collar employees, we found differences of ~20%; they always favoured the days involving PA. This was consistent across three main areas of work - meeting the thinking demands, meeting the interpersonal demands and improving personal organisation.

These results, identified in the early 2000s, have strong parallels with the three E factors (Energy, Exploration and Engagement) identified more recently. In effect, work day physical activity made employees feel ~20% better than on days when they didn’t do any activity.

Final thought

If your commuting represents a return to work, it signals a ‘fresh start effect’. This reframes what work means or might mean. Using EAST will help any of us do better. Beyond improving long-term health trajectories (weight loss first, then blood pressure and cholesterol and finally reduced death rates!), we can all use the positive adaptations that accompany commuter cycling for better individual, group and team working.

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