By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) - Adults who bike regularly, whether for fun or for transportation, may have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than people who don’t spend much time cycling, two recent studies suggest.

While plenty of previous research has documented the health benefits of biking as part of a regular workout routine, the current studies offer fresh evidence that cycling for commutes or leisure may also be good for the heart.

“Many people think that being physically active means doing regular structured exercise, which can be a huge barrier to an active lifestyle,” said Anders Grontved, senior author of one of the studies.

“Our study shows that biking either for recreation or as a way to commute is also great for heart health,” Grontved, a researcher at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, said by email.

For this study, Grontved and colleagues analyzed data on more than 45,000 Danish adults who biked regularly for commuting or recreation. Over 20 years of follow up, bikers had 11 percent to 18 percent fewer heart attacks than people who didn’t do any cycling, researchers report in the journal Circulation.

Overall, participants had 2,892 heart attacks during the study. Researchers estimate that more than 7 percent of all heart attacks could have been averted by taking up cycling and keeping it up on a regular basis.

Biking as little as an hour a week provided some protection against coronary artery disease, the study also found.

And the results also suggest it’s never too late to start.

Among adults who didn’t bike at the start of the study, those who took up cycling within the first five years had about a 25 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than the people who remained non-bikers.

This study is observational, and can’t prove that commuting by bike or cycling for fun actually prevents heart attacks, the authors note.

A second study in the Journal of the American Heart Association study also linked bicycle commutes to several factors that can influence heart health including lower odds of obesity, high cholesterol or elevated blood pressure.

For that study, researchers followed more than 20,000 Swedish adults over 10 years.

At the start of the study, the average age was about 43 and people who biked to work were 15 percent less likely to be obese, 13 percent less likely have high blood pressure and 15 percent less likely to have high cholesterol than those who used public transportation or drove to work.

By the end of the study, people who switched from sedentary commutes to biking commutes were also less likely to be obese, have diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol than the ones who remained non-bikers.

At the end, people who biked had a 39 percent lower risk of obesity overall, 11 percent lower risk of high blood pressure, 20 percent lower risk of high cholesterol and 18 percent lower diabetes risk.

“And, people who were sedentary at baseline, but switched to active commuting during follow-up also saw substantial reductions in the risk of developing these disorders,” said senior study author Paul Franks of Lund University in Sweden.

Naturally, the process of switching from passive to active commuting not only involves increased moderate intensity physical activity, but also a reduction in sedentary behaviors like sitting in a car or on a bus,” Franks said by email.

There didn’t appear to be a minimum amount of time or distance required to lower the risk of heart disease, though people with more frequent longer rides did tend to have a greater reduction in risk than those who took shorter bike trips or cycled less often.

Like the first study, this one doesn’t prove that commuting by bike directly improves cardiovascular health or prevents heart attacks, the authors note.

But based on their findings, the researchers estimated that maintaining biking habits or switching from passive commuting to biking may have prevented 24 percent of obesity cases, 6 percent of hypertension diagnoses, 13 percent of high cholesterol diagnoses, and 11 percent of the cases of diabetes.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2faItTB Circulation and http://bit.ly/2fetZjI Journal of the American Heart Association, online October 31, 2016.