Cycling and health

Getting on your bike regularly not only gets you where you want to go faster than a car, it protects you against a wide range of ill health, and also makes you feel better.

Cycling is good for your heart and health

Everyday cycling, where the exercise leaves you breathing heavily but not being out of breath, is an effective and enjoyable form of aerobic exercise. This is the type of exercise that is most effective at promoting good health. For example, cycling reduces the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and the most common form of diabetes.1,2,3,4

One rough calculation suggests that new cyclists covering short distances can reduce their risk of death (mainly due to the reduction of heart disease) by as much as 22 per cent.5

Cycling will help with weight management

Cycling can be part of a programme to lose weight2 because it burns the energy supplied by a chocolate bar or a couple of alcoholic drinks in an hour (about 300 calories). A 15-minute bike ride to and from work five times a week burns off the equivalent of 11 pounds of fat in a year.6 That kind of cycling pattern also meets the Government’s latest target on exercise: that we should take part in some mild to moderate physical activity that leaves us out of breath for at least 30 minutes five times a week.

Cycling can improve your mood

Cycling can have positive effects on how we feel too.2 Moderate exercise has been found to reduce levels of depression and stress, improve mood and raise self-esteem, and has also been found to relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.4,5,7

Cycling can help to maintain strength and coordination

There can also be indirect benefits in terms of reducing injuries from falls, which can be seriously disabling, especially in older people. The strength and co-ordination that regular cycling brings make them less likely.4,5,8,9 Physically active older people have much reduced rates of hip fracture.10

How cycling improves fitness

A study carried out for the Department of Transport found that ‘even a small amount of cycling can lead to significant gains in fitness’. The study found that aerobic fitness was boosted by 11 per cent after just six weeks of cycling ‘short distances’ four times a week.8 If cycling the equivalent of four miles to and from work in total a day the aerobic benefit increased to 17 per cent.8

According to the Department of Transport study people who do not exercise who start cycling move from the third of the population who are the least fit, to the fittest half of the population in just a few months.8

Leg strength also improved in the cyclists in the study. This is more important than it seems because leg strength improves other mobility by allowing people to get out of chairs more easily, and helps older people especially avoid falls and the broken bones and other injuries associated with them.8

Cycling, the researchers behind the study concluded, is ‘one of the few physical activities which can be undertaken by the majority of the population as part of a daily routine’.8

Cyclists breathe in less fumes than car drivers

If you are worried about traffic fumes, there may be no need. Cyclists and pedestrians actually absorb lower levels of pollutants from traffic fumes than car drivers.4,11

Who can cycle?

There are no real age barriers to cycling, and people of most fitness levels can cycle, slowly and gently if necessary. Anyone with heart disease or other conditions affecting their activity should, of course, consult their doctor before starting any exercise programme. Those of all body shapes and all but the most extreme body weights can ride a bike.

Getting Started

What sets cycling apart from most other forms of exercise is how well it fits into our busy, modern lifestyles. Apart from the bicycle itself (and a recommended protective helmet) no other equipment is needed, no special time needs to be set, and no special clothes are needed (although you might want to leave your best suit on the hanger). Instead of spending time stuck in a car or bus, you spend it on the bike, there is no need to find extra time to exercise.

It’s as easy as riding a bike. You simply start to use a bike when you would otherwise have gone by car, bus, train or on foot. How much you ride depends on you, your fitness and your lifestyle. New cyclists could start off by using the bike to pop a few hundred yards down the road to the shops or the post box, and gradually increase the distance they cover. In a few weeks aerobic fitness will have improved and you will be able to ride for miles without feeling anything more than a little puffed out.

Helmets

There is still some argument, but there is increasing evidence that cycle helmets can reduce the number and severity of head injuries in cyclists. To be any good at all the helmet must be worn correctly and be close fitting without being pushed to the back of the head. Get expert advice from someone in a bike shop. But remember, the health benefits of cycling significantly outweigh the risks of cycling on British roads.5

Keep at it

Most cyclists are ‘utility’ cyclists where the bike is a way of getting from A to B, and getting some exercise is an added bonus. Nearly three-quarters of journeys people make are of five miles or less, and these could be acheived by most people.12 On reasonably flat ground you will soon be able to cover at least four to six miles in half an hour – faster than cars in many towns and cities.

But those bitten by the bike bug may improve their fitness and may make long rides to work, or may choose to go leisure cycling where they cover 30-50 miles a day.

Competitive individuals may want to start racing – against other cyclists or against the clock.

Fitter individuals with a taste for adventure may choose to try mountain biking, speeding down specially made trails on the side of hills, leaping over dips and jumping over obstacles.

These more active cyclists are likely to increase their health benefits. In general the more active an individual is, the healthier they are. But, whichever form of cycling you choose to pursue, remember to have fun while you’re doing it. As you are whizzing past drivers stuck in a queue, you can enjoy the fact that not only are you getting to your destination quicker, but you are getting fit at the same time.

Further information

References

  1. Carnall D. Cycling and health promotion. A safer, slower urban road environment is the key. BMJ 2000; 320: 888.
  2. Mersy DJ. Health benefits of aerobic exercise. Postgrad Med 1991; 90: 103-7 and 110-2.
  3. Kelley GA. Effects of Aerobic exercise in normotensive adults: a brief metaanalytic review of controlled clinical trials. South Med J 1995; 88: 42-46.
  4. www.nationalcyclingstrategy.org.uk
  5. Rutter H. Modal shift. Transport and health. A policy report on the health benefits of increasing levels of cycling in Oxfordshire
    www.modalshift.org/reports/tandh/print_version.htm
  6. Leeds cycling action group. Cycling and Health
    www.leedscyclists.org.uk/health.htm
  7. Scully D, Kremer J, Meade MM et al. Physical exercise and psychological wellbeing. In MacAuley D (Ed.) Benefits and hazards of exercise. London: BMJ Books 1999.
  8. Fentem PH. ABC of sports medicine. Benefits of exercise in health and disease. BMJ 1994; 308: 1291-5.
  9. Joakimsen RM, Magnus JH, Fonnebo V. Physical activity and predisposition for hip fractures: a review. Osteoporosis Int 1998; 7: 503-13.
  10. Rank J, Folke J, Jespersen PH. Differences in cyclists and car drivers exposure to air pollution from traffic in the city of Copenhagen. Sci Total Environ 2001; 279: 131-6.
  11. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. A new deal for transport: Better for everyone. Chapter 2 Sustainable transport. Published 20 July 1998.
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