Riding a bike regularly does you the world of good, helping you lose or maintain weight, get toned muscles, and even live longer.
Cycling is one of the best forms of exercise for keeping fit and healthy. That’s not because there’s something special about turning pedals – although it does exercise the biggest muscles in the body and doesn’t stress joints like running – but because cycling is easy to integrate into everyday life. You can’t swim to work or canoe to the shops! Go by bike and you’ll get regular exercise, which is exactly what the NHS recommends.
Like any form of exercise, cycling burns calories. The more cycling you do and the more effort you put in, the more calories you’ll burn. Even an easy-to-moderate effort such as commuting will use around 300 calories per hour. This will help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight – although the pounds won’t fall off as fast as you might hope because cycling is the world’s most energy efficient form of locomotion! It will take more than a month of half-hour each-way commutes, five times a week, to shift a couple of pounds of fat. To get slimmer faster, you’ll need to cycle more (or harder) or change your diet.
Cycling is a great workout for your legs. The key muscles for pedalling are the quadriceps (the group of big muscles in the top of the thigh), the hamstring (in the back of the thigh), and the gluteous maximus (the buttock muscle). The calf muscle also does some work. All these muscles will become stronger and more chiselled the more cycling you do. Unless you’re doing a lot of sprinting, you’re unlikely to develop big muscles, but they will be comparatively large for your weight. Keen cyclists sometimes struggle finding jeans to fit because those designed for slim waists are tight around powerful thighs!
Cycling is excellent cardiovascular exercise. It raises your heart rate on a regular basis, which strengthens your heart muscle as time goes by. Because your blood then gets pumped around your body more efficiently, your blood pressure will reduce. Your resting pulse is likely to drop as well. You’ll find that cycling feels easier, for a given journey, the more you do it. As the ‘engine capacity’ of your body improves, you’ll end up cruising along at speeds that would have defeated you – or reduced you to a sweaty mess – when you first started cycling. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cardiovascular health…
Heart disease is the UK’s biggest killer, accounting for around one in four deaths each year. Regular cycling halves the risk of heart disease. While walking also reduces the risk, cycling is much more effective. Cyclists tend to exercise harder than walkers – for example, getting out of breath on hills – and they spend more time riding than walkers do walking. Unlike, say, gym-goers, cyclists don’t tend to backslide. They carry on doing it because it’s convenient and fun.
Halving your risk of heart disease is an amazing statistic by itself, but there’s more. The same study found that regular cycling cut the risk of cancer by 45% and ‘death from any cause’ by 41%! The takeaway from this? Our bodies have evolved to move – and regular cycling is an excellent way for them to do that.
Regular cyclists enjoy an overall fitness level equivalent to someone ten years younger. Like other adults who remain physically active, cyclists live about two years longer than the general population. That might not sound huge if you’re 30 years old (though your perception may change when you’re 80!) but it’s not just lifespan that’s being extended. Being physically active extends your “healthspan” – your healthy, independent life.
The bottom line on problems
While cycling is excellent for your physical health in general, it can cause aches and pains, particularly if you’re coming back to it after a long layoff. Here’s the too-long-didn’t-read version of the solution: commute like a Dutch cyclist, not like a wannabe road racing cyclist.
Now let’s look at the details. First off, the red-cheeked elephant in the room: ‘my bum hurts’. The problem will be one or more of pressure, friction, and hygiene.
The muscles in your buttocks may ache a bit when you start cycling. Don’t worry unless it’s acute or doesn’t go away. Conversely, if you get any numbness or pain in the genitals, something is very wrong: you’re carrying your weight on your undercarriage instead of your ‘sit bones’, the bony bits at the bottom of your pelvis. You need a suitable saddle, correctly angled, and a riding position that doesn’t make you lean forward too much. Avoid cycling in trousers with thick seams.
Can lead to chafed skin and maybe even boils. It’s more of a problem when cycling longer distances but if it affects you while commuting, try padded shorts (perhaps underneath other clothing). Cycling specific ‘chamois cream’ – or just Sudocrem from the chemist – can also help prevent problems. Smother it liberally.
Heat and sweat can lead to itching. If it affects you, don’t sit around in sweaty cycling shorts or pants: wear breathable fabrics against your skin and get changed into clean pants after a ride. This is particularly important if you suffer from urinary tract infections.
Other issues, easily addressed
Cycling can give you tight hamstrings, a stiff lower back, a stiff neck, and aches and pains in the hands. You can often solve these issues by making your bike more comfortable. At the end of the day, however, you’ll still be sitting in basically one position while spinning your feet in little circles. As outstanding as this may be for your cardiovascular health, it won’t do anything to keep your supple. Do some stretching, yoga, pilates, or swimming if you find yourself stiffening up.
Some cyclists suffer hip or knee problems. Given that cyclists spin their feet in circles thousands of times per hour, this is perhaps not surprising. Are you pedalling correctly, with the saddle at a comfortable height and a gear that’s easy to turn? Are you using clip-in pedals? If your feet are locked into a position your body won’t tolerate, it’ll be uncomfortable. Try flat pedals instead – or book yourself a professional bike fit.
Cycling can be enjoyed with serious disabilities and ailments. So don’t be dissuaded if you run into a few problems. There’s almost always a way to keep riding in comfort – and every reason to do so.
Learn about the scheme