Is cycling the royal road to health and fitness?

GET on your bike is the message from the new government with its promise that…

Is cycling the royal road to health and fitness?

GET on your bike is the message from the new government with its promise that €360 million will be allocated to cycling and pedestrian projects each year during its term.

A commitment by the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party coalition will also see 10% of the total transport capital budget allocated for cycling projects, the latest sign that this is the start of a golden era for cycling.

In recent months we have embraced two wheels like never before. During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, bike shops across the country reported that they struggled to keep up with demand for new and second-hand bikes, with stocks depleted in many stores. At Donnybrook Bikes in Dublin there was a reported 500% increase in trade while Marry Bikes, Co Mayo, said sales of child and adult bikes remained at a peak even during the most restrictive period of the lockdown.

At City View Wheels, an electric bike store in Cork, there was a “70%, maybe 75% increase” in sales with the explosion in interest leaving bike shops struggling to secure supplies.

And while we struggled without access to gyms and leisure centres, the appeal of freedom and fitness via two wheels saw our enthusiasm for cycling spiral. A survey by Sport Ireland found that more than 510,000 adults said they are cycling at least once a week in May, an increase of 220,000 in the same period last year which can only mean good news for our health and our waistlines. Long may it continue.

Cycling is more than a means to getting in shape – it can boost your mental health, your immunity and even lead to a longer life. Here, we look at everything pedalling can (or can’t) do for your health:

Don’t expect results overnight

The heavier you are, the more energy it takes to move your frame — which is partly why any exercise feels like hard work when you have a lot of weight to lose. In a given hour at a given pace, cycling is a good calorie-blaster, but not the most super-efficient. For a person who weighs 100kg, cycling at moderate speed for an hour would burn around 500 calories. Brisk walking for someone of the same weight would use 400 calories and jogging 700 calories per hour. You’d need to cycle for 60 minutes three times a week just to use up 1500 calories.

Picture: Stock image
Picture: Stock image

You’ll need to cycle further than you run

Cycling and running are excellent forms of cardiovascular exercise, but because you are supporting and moving your body when you run (and are sitting on a saddle on a bike), running uses more energy to cover the same distances. Exercise physiologists calculate that, as a general rule of thumb, you’ll need to cycle three times further than you run for the same calorie-burn.

“The harder you work, the faster you will get results,” says fitness trainer Matt Roberts. “Adding hills or brief bursts of speed can transform your cycle into a more time-efficient workout.”

It won’t build your bones

Bone is a living tissue that reacts to increases in loads and forces by growing stronger. For exercise to increase bone strength it needs to involve shifting your body weight off the ground with series jumps and jolts — and cycling doesn’t do that. Last year, researchers from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and Norwegian Olympic Training Centre in Oslo looked at the skeletons of competitive cyclists and runners.

All of the athletes ate a diet healthy enough to support bones yet their bone density was noticeably different with the cyclists having thinner bones than the runners. Bottom line? Cycling is great for your heart and lungs, but include some weight-bearing activity — lifting weights, skipping, running —to boost your bones.

Think about your upper body

Cycling powers your quadriceps and gluteal muscles and to a lesser extent the muscles in the lower legs. But the upper body remains largely unchallenged. “Cycling is fantastic for improving cardiovascular health and leg muscle strength, but not so great for the upper body,” says Roberts. “Make sure you redress the imbalance with plenty of resistance work for the arms, chest and shoulders.”

It’s a form of therapy

Cycling outdoors for an hour a week brings huge stress-relieving benefits according to exercise psychologists. James Beale, who led the research at the University of East London, recruited 11 men aged 34-52 who had two years’ experience of cycling for a minimum of an hour a week of so-called “green-cycling” through green spaces and the countryside. None of the men said they were motivated by competition, but by their improved stress levels, a result of “getting away from it all” on their bikes. “Green-cycling merges the essential qualities of natural surroundings — aesthetic, feelings of calm and a chance for exploration — with the potential for physical challenge and that resulted in better mental health,” says Beale.

Benefits can outweigh the negatives of pollution

There’s no escaping some potentially harmful airborne particles, particularly when you cycle in cities. Sticking to quieter side streets or planning to use dedicated cycle routes can help reduce exposure to pollution, as can wearing a face mask, but even if you do cycle through urban areas, there is evidence that the health benefits of pedalling offset some of the pollution risks.

A 2016 study led by researchers from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) and Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge reported that even in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, people would need to cycle over five hours per week before the pollution risks outweigh the health benefits.

Picture: Stock image
Picture: Stock image

It boosts your immunity

A 2018 study of older cyclists that was conducted at the University of Birmingham found that they not only age better than the rest of the population (their body fat and cholesterol levels didn’t increase with age and in men testosterone levels, which usually dip with age, remained high) but also have a more youthful immune system.

An organ called the thymus, which makes T-cells needed for healthy immunity, tends to shrink with age but researchers reported in the journal Aging Cell that long-term amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79 who underwent laboratory tests were shown to produce as many T-cells as young people.

It’s kind to the joints (but watch your knees)

Because it is non weight bearing and your excess pounds are supported by the saddle, cycling, like swimming, is kinder to the knees than running. But cyclists are not immune to knee problems. Usually, they are a result of the saddle being placed at the wrong height which causes the hips to tilt and knee flexion to increase. The result is irritation of the patellofemoral (PF) area right at the front of the knee.

“One of the most common causes of injury with recreational cyclists or newcomers to the sport is a badly positioned saddle,” says physiotherapist Phil Burt. “Set your saddle to be level with your hip bone. You should have a ‘soft’ knee with not too much knee bend.” Set your handlebars about level with your saddle.”

It’s unlikely to damage men’s sexual health

Male cyclists concerned that too much time in the saddle will affect their performance in the bedroom can rest easy. Some researchers have found that microtrauma to the perineum and pressure from saddles decreases blood flow to the penis, causing temporary erectile dysfunction.

But a 2018 study in the Journal of Urology involving 2,774 male cyclists, 539 swimmers, and 789 runners found their sexual and urinary health to be comparable.

High-intensity cyclists had overall better erectile function scores than low-intensity cyclists and standing out of the saddle more than 20% of the time while cycling significantly reduced the odds of genital numbness.

Intense cycling has also been shown to increase levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood for 24 hours a 2014 study by researchers at University College London suggested men aged over 50 who cycled more than nine hours a week were at a raised risk of prostate cancer. However, the researchers said there was no cause and effect and that the male cyclists had a cancer rate three times lower than that observed in the general population.

It beats walking to work

A study by researchers from the University of Otago, the University of Melbourne and the University of Auckland, that was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in January found cycling commuters had a 13% reduction in mortality during the 15-year study. Analysing data from 3.5m people, 80% of the working-age population of New Zealand, Dr Caroline Shaw, from the department of public health at the University of Otago, says the study found no association between walking to work and a reduction in mortality.

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