Cycling is a low-impact cardiovascular sport with countless benefits for the mind and body. Cycling is suitable for people of all ages, and people can pick up the sport at any time in their life. Whether you’re looking to cycle for fitness, fun or both, here’s a look at the top benefits of cycling—plus how to stay safe when riding on two wheels.
Cycling is a popular form of exercise and transportation used around the world. People ride bikes for many reasons: to get in shape, to get to work, to enjoy a leisurely afternoon. The benefits of cycling extend throughout the entire body, helping everything from bones and joints to muscle and mood.
Metabolism is a fundamental bodily process that converts nutrients into energy. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) determines how many calories your body burns while it's resting. In other words, your RMR tells you how many calories it takes to power essential functions like breathing and brain function (1).
A high resting metabolic rate helps a person burn calories more efficiently, and this effect increases over time as a person becomes more fit. Cycling is beneficial for boosting metabolism and increasing your resting metabolic rate. To give an example of its impact, cyclists who bike at a steady rate of at least 16 miles an hour can burn up to 850 miles per hour.
Riding a bike can feel like a leisurely activity, but it’s still an effective exercise for the muscles. It’s particularly good for improving muscle quality in older adults. For younger adults, it’s recommended to incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into a cycling regimen to see a boost in strength gains (2).
Research also demonstrates that cycling is an effective complement to strength training. Unlike running, which can reduce muscle mass in extreme cases, cycling affects neither strength, power nor hypertrophy (muscle growth) among weightlifters who also cycle (3).
According to Dr. Clare Safran-Norton, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, resistance activities like cycling have been shown to increase metabolic rate, reduce body fat and elevate physical performance, cognitive function and self-esteem(4).
Resistance activities also contribute to healthy bone density, which becomes increasingly important as you age(5). A higher bone mineral density (BMD) decreases the risk for osteoporosis and fall-related fractures(6). Given its ability to build muscle and improve bone density, cycling is a preventative measure for longevity and strength-building at any age.
Weight lossoccurs when calorie expenditure exceeds calorie intake. The equation is simple: If you eat more calories than you burn, you’re likely to gain weight. Over time, unfortunately, this equation becomes more complicated as the body’s capacity to remove fat through calorie expenditure slows down with age. As a result, people tend to gain weight as they grow older even when they aren’t eating more calories(7).
To combat unwanted weight gain, cycling at high-intensity intervals has the potential to promote weight loss. Studies have shown that HIIT cycling can reduce abdominal fat and improve insulin sensitivity, which is a core factor in the development of diabetes(8). This makes cycling an effective activity for older adults to maintain a healthy weight as they age, especially when combined with strength training.
In addition to improving physical health, cycling boasts a variety of benefits for mental health. According to psychologistKim Chronister, cycling increases brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that boost mood and reduce pain.
She adds that exercises like cycling create more dopamine receptors in the brain, meaning they increase the capacity for your brain to feel happy(9). Cycling is also considered an effective stress management tool. When compared with those who drove to work, researchers have found that people who cycle experience less stress during their morning commute.
Biking has also been proven to boostbrain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays a role in the function of the central nervous system(10). BDNF helps to prevent Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases. Moreover, a steady cycling ride supplies your brain with ample oxygen, which helps to keep cognitive functioning sharp(11).
Like running, cycling is a cardiovascular exercise that boosts heart health and increases lung capacity. Unlike cycling, however, running can add stress to the joints including the knees, hips and ankles. Runners also experience higher levels of muscle damage, soreness and systemic inflammation in comparison to cyclists(12). For people with inflammatory diseases like arthritis, cycling can be a gentler approach to cardiovascular exercise.
After just three months of cycling, studies show that sedentary adults with osteoarthritis experienced significantly less joint pain, stiffness and limitations. Participants in this study also saw increases in strength and walking pace compared to the start of the trial. This suggests that for people withjoint pain, cycling can be a healthy way to exercise that not only reduces pain but strengthens the body to increase overall functionality in the process(13).
Despite the physical and mental health benefits of cycling, it can be dangerous if safety is not prioritized. Preparing yourself to ride in traffic can ensure that you stay safe when sharing the road with cars.
The National Safety Council suggests the following tips for preventing injury when cycling:
Cyclists can also do their part to be safe when biking on the road. Safety skills for riding include:
Finally, a proper-fitting helmet is essential for safety. Your helmet should first and foremost be snug. This means that when you rock your head from side to side, it shouldn’t slip or move. This ensures a tight fit, meaning it won’t fall off in the instance of a fall or collision.
Your helmet should also be snapped or clipped correctly under your chin. If the ropes are twisted in any way, it can cause discomfort and decrease protection. Keep in mind that different activities require different helmets. While you might have an extra helmet for snowboarding or skateboarding, it’s safer to use a helmet specifically for bicycling.
When riding in traffic, it’s helpful to know certain hand signals for communicating with other bicyclists and motorists. Think about ways you can stay predictable in traffic. For example, point to the right when you’re turning right so drivers and riders behind you know what to expect.
This is the best way to ensure that you’re visible when navigating through an urban environment(16).
Cycling is an enjoyable sport with a myriad of benefits for mental and physical health. Studies have shown that cycling can boost energy and metabolism while building new muscle and bone, which is important for longevity and injury-prevention throughout aging. Riding a bike can also help you maintain a healthy weight, keep your mind sharp and reduce inflammation and pain in the joints.
Before hopping on your bike for the first time, be sure you know the best practices for bike safety. This includes setting yourself up with the proper equipment before you embark on your ride with a well-fitted helmet, reflectors, bright clothing and a quick check of your bike to ensure its parts are functioning properly. It’s also important to understand basic hand signals and traffic flow to ensure the safety of you and others on the road.
No matter what your goals are for cycling, it has the potential to make you healthier and happier for years to come.
Michelle Polizzi - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice