A bicycle is a favorite means of transport for many, as it is suitable for both experienced athletes and people with the poor physical condition.
Pedaling with the wind in your hair across a green meadow or with a babbling brook – doesn’t that sound like true pleasure? In addition to immediate pleasure, cycling also brings long-term health benefits and helps protect the environment from pollution.
How good is cycling for our health, especially if we haven’t exercised for a while and are out of shape? What are its effects compared to other forms of exercise?
Health benefits of cycling
Joints and muscles
If we analyze only the burning of calories, we could conclude that cycling is a second-rate exercise, because, depending on the intensity, it consumes about 400 to 600 calories per hour – less than running or swimming in the same given time. It is true that running burns calories faster because this activity involves moving the entire body weight under one’s own power. However, this is precisely why running is not recommended for a large number of people. Shifting your body weight is stressful on your knees and ankles while pedaling is more gentle on your joints. Research has found that when riding a bicycle, the seat and handlebars carry 70 percent of the body’s weight, instead of all of it being carried by the ankles. And the bigger the cyclist, the more they will spare their ankles by cycling compared to running. Consequently, injuries are less likely when cycling, because we do not force the joints to bear the entire body weight.
In addition to protecting the joints, especially the hips, knees, and ankles, pedaling strengthens the musculature, especially the quadriceps and buttock muscles. Anyone suffering from discus hernia or acute sciatica should still avoid cycling until they get rid of the accompanying ailments.
It goes without saying that any form of exercise has benefits, but cycling does it better than others. Cycling very successfully strengthens the cardiovascular system and reduces the rate of morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular diseases. Studies have shown that cycling improves heart function and increases the resistance and endurance of the entire organism. This sport has a beneficial effect on blood flow, especially in the lower limbs. It prevents swelling on the legs because thanks to the rhythmic movement of the muscles, the walls of the veins become more elastic. It is no coincidence that the bicycle is often used in the cardiac rehabilitation of people who have suffered a heart attack or had heart surgery.
Cycling is also beneficial for the respiratory system because it improves lung capacity and makes breathing more efficient. Bronchitis sufferers benefit from pedaling, but they should not be exposed to cold and rainy weather. Those who suffer from seasonal allergies, for example to pollen, should avoid driving in areas where there are many allergens.
Another good thing about cycling is its rhythmic nature. Rhythmic pedaling, as well as other rhythmic activities, stimulates the release of serotonin, which relieves tension and induces a sense of calm. Persistent and moderately intense riding also releases endorphins, hormones of pleasure, which cause a feeling of general well-being and lead us to get back on the bike and have the same experience.
Research has shown that cycling improves sleep, melts body fat, and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Cyclists live longer
When all the positive effects are added up, it is not surprising that cyclists live longer. A study of more than 30,000 people in Denmark found that people who cycle to work have a lower death rate than those who use motor vehicles. More precisely, among those who do not travel to work by this means of transport, the death rate in the fifteen-year period was 39 percent higher than among cyclists.
Cycling is rewarding because it is easy to fit into everyday life. While swimming requires a trip to the pool (unless you’re the lucky few who have their own pool) and working on the machines means going to the gym, cycling requires just getting on the bike and going… to work, school, or the store. The authors of a British study announced that “cycling is one of the most suitable physical activities for the majority of the population because it can be easily incorporated into the daily routine, can be performed at different intensities, and has few unwanted side effects.”
Cycling is not without its risks, but most of them suffer from professional cyclists or fanatical recreationists. A lot of time spent in the seat can cause a decrease in sensation in the genitals, and some studies have warned of a lower sperm count in elite cyclists.
Some risks concern all cyclists, and the first is the risk of a traffic accident. A British study found that cyclists are more likely to be killed on the road than pedestrians, due to greater contact with motor vehicles than pedestrians. The most common times for accidents are the morning and afternoon traffic “rush hours”. Despite this, most doctors agree that the potential benefits of cycling still outweigh the risks.
Although the bicycle is also suitable for people with the poor physical condition because it can be ridden very slowly, do not forget to perform stretching exercises, especially for the leg, back and neck muscles, before riding. If you haven’t moved for a long time, gradually increase the intensity, because the body has to adapt to the increased efforts.
If you are not an experienced cyclist, please note that you should always carry a thermos or water bottle, as it is important to be constantly hydrated. Adjust the seat so that your leg is not fully extended when you fully depress the pedal. It’s better if your foot can reach the ground without leaning too much or getting off the seat, as your landing leg can be used for maneuvering and stopping.
THE BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE RISKS
The health benefits of cycling in the city outweigh the dangers of air pollution and traffic congestion, researchers in the Netherlands have announced. They analyzed data from numerous international studies on the benefits of exercise and the dangers posed by exhaust gases and traffic accidents. They then assessed what the health effects would be if half a million Dutch adults switched from cars to bicycles for the purposes of daily travel on a distance of eight to 14 kilometers. The research came to the conclusion that cyclists in city traffic are exposed to harmful components of exhaust gases, which can contribute to respiratory and heart problems. Since cyclists breathe deeper than pedestrians, they inhale larger amounts of harmful substances. They also calculated that the risk of being killed in traffic is four times greater for a cyclist than for a car driver over the same distance traveled.
But despite the stated risks, the researchers concluded that the health benefits of cycling are at least nine times greater than the risks. By switching from cars to bicycles, people would live three to 14 months longer due to increased physical activity. At the same time, switching to bicycles would have an additional beneficial effect on health, as there would be half a million fewer car trips in both directions every day. This would reduce overall pollution, and thus the number of exhaust gases inhaled by cyclists. Fewer cars on the road would also reduce the risk of serious traffic accidents in collisions between bicycles and motor vehicles.