Pedal Power: Benefits of Riding Your Bike

bike riding benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exercise is a foundational pillar of good health, but may be overlooked when work, family and other obligations reduce your available time
  • Bicycling to and from work reduces your risk of disease and helps you integrate a well-rounded workout program into your weekly routine
  • To reduce your risk of injury, it’s important to follow the rules of the road and use a well-fitted bike and good form

By Dr. Mercola

Exercise is one of the foundational pillars of good health that I've been practicing for over 45 years. You experience profound benefits from exercise, especially as you age, including improved sleep quality, immune system support and a reduced risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

There are several different types of exercise you can use to reach your goals. A smart combination of different types will produce positive biochemical changes that may reduce chronic pain and improve depression. But, one of the biggest issues people face today is simply not having enough time to exercise.

I believe a well-rounded exercise program includes strength training, flexibility (stretching), cardiovascular and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). A common mistake is to focus on getting hours of cardiovascular exercise, which may in fact be more detrimental than helpful.

A simple way to address your lack of time is to integrate strength training, flexibility and HIIT with cardiovascular exercise. Although multitasking is not a productive way of achieving cognitive tasks, it may be just what you need to find the time to exercise.

A recent study demonstrates how actively commuting to work may help you achieve your goals.

Active Commute to Work May Improve Your Health

Over 250,000 people1 were recruited from 22 different geographical locations in the U.K. to participate in a study designed to evaluate the association between active commuting and mortality risk.

The researchers chose those who biked, walked or used their car to commute to work and measured rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer, deaths from those diseases and all-cause mortality.

It may come as no surprise that the more physically active the participants were, the lower their risk of disease and mortality during the study period.

The scientists' intent was to differentiate several factors that in previous studies had not been accounted for — such as the difference between walking or cycling to work, or the different risk potential between the groups.2

The average age of the participants was 53, and once factors that also impact cardiovascular health were adjusted for in the analysis, the researchers found those who bicycled to work had significantly lower rates of CVD and mortality; in fact, they had the lowest risk of these outcomes, as well as lower risk of cancer and all-cause mortality.

Interestingly, the researchers found in this observational study that those who walked to work had to walk more than 6 miles each week to experience a reduction in risk to the health conditions evaluated in the study.

If the commuters combined active commuting with using the car, they enjoyed the benefits only if their active commute meant using a bicycle and not if they walked to work.3

Active Commuting Could Save Billions

An accompanying editorial from Lars Bo Andersen, a professor of epidemiology, public health and sports medicine at Western Norway University, expounded on the idea that through choosing an active means of commuting, countries could save billions of dollars in health care costs.

He described how Copenhagen prioritized bicycling as a means of commuting. The city built an infrastructure that supports cycling with bike lanes, tunnels and bridges, as well as changing speed laws so no car or bus can travel faster than a bike through the city.

Since the changes, the city has enjoyed a 30 percent increase in biking and reduced traffic-related accidents by two-thirds. Anderson comments on the current study:4

"The findings from this study are a clear call for political action on active commuting, which has the potential to improve public health by preventing common (and costly) non-communicable diseases.

A shift from car to more active modes of travel will also decrease traffic in congested city [centers] and help reduce air pollution, with further benefits for health."

Making an Active Commute Part of Your Daily Workout

By biking back and forth to work, you can incorporate flexibility, HIIT and cardiovascular workouts into your morning and afternoon commute. This is a time you'll be spending getting to and from work anyway, so why not use the time as productively as possible?

A steady ride in the morning helps to get your creative juices flowing and increase blood flow to your brain and muscles. This may also inspire you to continue to move more throughout the day. I recommend sitting as little as possible to improve your overall health.

Stretching for a short time after your ride helps to cool down your body and takes advantage of warm muscles. After a ride to work, a short stretching routine for your legs and ankles can help prevent stiffness during the day.

Read more about stretching and consider the simple stretches outlined in my previous article, "The Importance of Stretching Your Hamstrings, IT Band and Ankles."

Incorporating HIIT into your weekly routine is a simple means of improving your heart health and burning more calories over a shorter period of time.

Your commute home is a great time to use HIIT to raise your heart rate and get you mentally ready for the rest of the evening. This is a strategy you may incorporate up to three times each week.

By picking up the pace for a short period of time, you increase your benefits and reduce the time needed to accomplish the same results. Biking on your way home is the perfect time to use HIIT. Read more about how to accomplish this in my previous article, "If You Exercise Intensely, Your Fitness Routine Can Be Cut Extremely Short."

Strength training is all that's left to get a well-rounded routine. Schedule a short workout for days you aren't doing HIIT.

The exercises in my previous article, "Bodyweight Exercise Is Perfect for Everyone, Everywhere, on Every Budget and Every Fitness Level," are highly efficient, don't require a gym and you'll already be warmed up from your bike ride home.

Preparing for Your Commute to Work

It's important to prepare for a consistent active commute to work in order to be successful. Strategies to get the most from your pedal power, reduce your risk of injury and be ready for work takes just a bit of planning. However, once you have a routine in place, it becomes second nature and you'll reap great health rewards.

Like any other time you're out riding, be sure to bring the equipment needed to repair a flat tire. Using your bike consistently throughout the week may mean you'll need to do maintenance more frequently.5 Keeping your chain clean of excess dirt and grime will ensure the bike shifts more easily. When your wheels are aligned and tires inflated, the ride is easier and the brakes work more smoothly.

By shifting your bike gears when they aren't under hard resistance, such as pedaling up hill, you'll reduce wear and tear on the shifter. You have to pedal while shifting, but can ease off a bit as you shift up or down.

Biking to work will mean it's more important to keep track of the weather, both for the commute in and back home. Driving home in the rain isn't nearly as challenging as riding in to work in a storm. Keep an eye on the weather reports and have a contingency plan if the weather is too inclement to ride.

Riding to work will likely mean you need a place to lock up your bike and take a quick shower before getting to your desk. Discuss your options with your company's human resources manager, explaining that your efforts to actively commute to work may encourage others to become more active and ultimately have a positive effect on the company health costs.

Good Form Improves Function

As with most exercises, using good form not only improves function but also reduces the likelihood of overuse injuries. And, pedaling efficiency is important to get the most out of every revolution of your feet, producing more power with less energy. In this short video, you'll see the basic form demonstrated that improves your efficiency on the pedals and your position on the bike.

Having your bike set up properly isn't only more comfortable, it's also more efficient.6 The placement of the seat, or saddle, on your bike determines whether you're driving the most power from the large muscles in your legs through the pedals of the bike. If the saddle is too high, you rock to fully extend your leg. If the saddle is too low, your knee comes up too high, impeding your diaphragm and cutting your oxygen supply, not to mention it's really uncomfortable.

If the saddle is too far forward on the bike you'll be pedaling behind you, and will be rocking on the bike to compensate. You'll find the saddle in the right position when your foot is at 3 o'clock and your knee is directly over the ball of your foot; and when your knee is slightly bent when the pedal is at 6 o'clock.7

There are two different philosophies about pedaling8 — pushing down between 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock or pushing down with one leg while pulling up with the other. It may seem to create more power to pull up on upswing, but you'll be placing a large workload on muscles designed to lift your leg against gravity and not against resistance. Your best option is to use only your muscle to push through from the top of the revolution to the base.

Keep your hip, knee and ankle lined up through the pedal stroke, without wobbling at the knee or with your knee outside or inside the line from ankle to hip.9 This not only generates more power, but also reduces potential for an injury. The power you generate at the pedal is a factor of your cadence (how many times your feet revolve in one minute) multiplied by the torque, or the resistance against which you are pedaling.

It's common to try to push into a higher gear before adapting to pedaling at a higher, more efficient cadence. Your goal is to easily pedal between 80 and 100 revolutions per minute. In the beginning, you'll accomplish this with less effort at a lower gear. As your strength improves, you can increase the resistance as you maintain the cadence.

Reduce Your Risk of Injury

Although there aren't as many moving parts as some other aerobic sports, there is still a chance for an overuse injury while biking, especially if your body is not aligned properly and too much stress is placed on your joints. Before looking further, ensure your saddle is at the right height and placement and your legs are properly aligned while biking.

If you're new to biking, start out slowly and gradually work up to biking to work each day. You'll reduce your risk of injury by building muscle, gaining flexibility and increasing your mileage slowly over several weeks. Start by biking to work once a week and gradually add a day until you're at five days a week, and enjoying the benefits of greater calorie burn and improved muscle strength.

Many times knee pain doesn't actually originate in the knee, but rather from a tight or inflamed iliotibial (IT) band, which runs along the outside of your thigh.10 Both a tight IT and weak hip abductors play a role in knee joint pain. Your abductor muscles are those that pull your hips out and away from your body. Adding an IT stretch and simple body weight abductor exercises once or twice a week with your strengthening routine can help prevent this from happening.

Patellar tendonitis, also called jumpers knee, may be triggered from a poor saddle height, increasing stress on the patellar tendon.11 Long hours in the saddle can cause skin breakdown, which may be alleviated with a proper seat height and properly padded shorts. Achilles tendonitis is another overuse injury that can result from a poorly fitting bike or tight calf muscles. Be sure to stretch your calf muscles after each bike ride. It takes very little time, and helps to prevent injury that can sideline you for weeks.

Respect the Rules of the Road

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 there were approximately 900 deaths and an estimated 494,000 bike accidents that resulted in an emergency room visit.12 Children and adolescents are at greater risk, and most accidents happened at non-intersection locations. Preventive strategies to use include:13,14

  • Use reflective strips and lighting at night. Fluorescent clothing during the day make your more visible to drivers while they are further away, and reflective strips and active lighting, such as headlights and rear red lights, make your more visible at night
  • Obey traffic signals and stop signs; don't coast through stoplights. Ride on the correct side of the road, with traffic. Use hand signals to signal your intention to turn at intersections
  • Assume drivers at intersections have not seen you, so make eye contact before turning
  • Ride predictably, approximately 2 feet from parked cars, so cars coming up behind you know what to expect from your behavior

Special Considerations for Men

Men have special considerations to stay injury free while riding. While cycling won't trigger erectile dysfunction (ED) issues, it can trigger damage in your genital area. A study of over 5,000 male cyclists between ages 16 and 88 years found no connection between cycling and ED, regardless of the number of miles logged each week.15

However, nerve damage, numbness and skin breakdown between your scrotum and anus may occur. Genital numbness should not be tolerated, even when it disappears quickly, since it indicates nerves are being compressed during your ride. An ill-fitting bike or poor saddle can increase this risk. Saddles with grooves or cutouts may reduce pressure in your perineum (area between the scrotum and anus), but the size and shape will also need to match your shape and physiology.

Men who enjoy going off-road and mountain biking may experience greater risk of injury to the genital area, including intermittent scrotal tenderness, scrotal cysts and calcifications.16 The number of scrotal abnormalities in men who mountain bike compared to non-bikers was significant in this study.

Heat generated in the groin area during long-distance riding may also impact sperm function and sperm count. If you love biking, take precautions to protect yourself by having a specialist properly fit your bike and saddle. Wearing padded bike shorts is another important addition to your bike gear. Generally, you won't ride enough miles to cause a major problem, but it is important to pay attention to symptoms and take periodic rest breaks during longer rides.

Keep Your Head Safe While Cycling

There is little doubt that wearing a helmet will help prevent a catastrophic head injury, but there is also evidence to suggest antiquated safety standards for helmets may not offer as much protection against concussions. Testing standards are designed to minimize the chance you'll die from a blow to your head. However, the tests are not conclusive and many are still debating the level of protection needed.17

What is known is that a study of over 64,000 cyclists found that helmets reduced a rider's risk of a serious head injury by nearly 70 percent. The results suggest that while helmets significantly reduce your risk of injury or death in a riding accident, they are also not a solution for all biking injuries, as they don't eliminate injury to the face, neck or other areas of the body. Chris Rissel, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, commented:18

"Helmets are a barrier to new riders, particularly for occasional and non-regular riders. The need to wear a helmet reinforces the message that cycling is dangerous — with perceptions of danger a major reason people give for not cycling."

However, wearing a helmet should no more enforce the message that cycling is dangerous than wearing a seatbelt in your car. Whenever you increase your speed of transportation beyond the speed of walking, you increase your risk for accident and injury. According to the car insurance industry, you'll experience a car accident every 17.4 years.19

This knowledge likely won't stop you from driving your car, however. For most people, the benefits of riding your bike each day — exercise, reduction in cardiovascular risk, weight management, lower risk of cancer and lower risk of all-cause mortality — should outweigh most safety concerns.

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