It can get harder and harder to stay active as you age. Your bones and muscle structure decline the older you get, and you may have aches and pains that prevent you from having a strong desire to exercise.
Cycling is one of the best exercises for aging bodies, though. It helps you work your cardiovascular system and keep your heart healthy. Because cycling is a low-impact sport, it reduces strain on the joints. Many studies show that biking can actually slow down the aging process in a variety of ways.
How Is Cycling Good For Aging Bodies?
Most people experience their biological peak between the ages of 20 and 35. After that, you start to lose muscle, and your heart and lung function weakens. As you get older, your exercise capacity and ability to recover from intense activity decline.
However, cycling can actually slow down the progression of aging. The Guardian reported on a study that compared cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79 with a group of healthy adults that did not exercise on a regular basis. The results showed that the cyclists experienced a slower decline in muscle mass than those who did not exercise.
Some other benefits of cycling include:
- Stable testosterone levels in men
- Preserved strength
- Constant body fat levels
- Improved cholesterol levels
One important finding was that cycling improved immunity. As you age, your thymus, an organ that produces T-cells, shrinks. T-cells participate in your immune response to antigens. The cyclists in the study appeared to make as many T-cells as younger individuals.
In another study, researchers found that participants who underwent interval training significantly changed activity levels in genes that influence mitochondria health. The cyclists in the group saw especially pronounced results. In other words, the decline in the health of muscle cells, which is associated with aging, was protected—and even reversed—in these individuals.
Cycling can also help you live longer. A 2017 study that was published in the BMJ found that people who regularly commuted by bike had a lower risk of death, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
How Does Cycling Improve Our Brain Health In Particular?
Even if you’re not an Olympic-level cyclist, you can improve your brain function by riding a bike. In a study that was published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, scientists reported that people who did 30 minutes of steady exercise on a stationary bicycle were better able to remember things, use reasoning and strategize after working out.
They took tests before and after cycling to get a baseline and record the results. Participants even spent less time on the tests after they exercised than they did before getting active.
This is important for the aging population because research shows that these are some of the functions that tend to weaken as you age. Although certain mental operations, like vocabulary, don’t tend to decline with age, others do. It’s normal to experience a reduction in processing speed, memory and reasoning.
These are considered to be fluid cognitive abilities. These skills are not based on experience, repetition or how much you have learned over the years. They are related to the connections between neurons in the brain.
Those connections have been shown to diminish as you get older. Your brain loses gray matter as you age even if you’re healthy and don’t have Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. White matter volume also diminishes with every birthday.
A BMG Geriatrics article reported that in aging individuals, aerobic exercise may increase both white and gray matter, especially in the brain regions that are responsible for executive control functions and memory. It may also improve the growth of neurons, which helps people retain the ability to learn.
Psychology Today explains that white matter is important for connecting different areas of the brain. Strong communication between neurons helps with learning and mental processing. Maintaining white matter helps safeguard your ability to think quickly.
Another way that cycling can prevent cognitive decline is by increasing the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. BDNF helps to protect the brain from damage. Reduced BDNF levels have been linked with the loss of memory and general cognitive functions in aging adults.
This protein may also play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists have found that people with Alzheimer’s and dementia have lower levels of BDNF than individuals without those conditions.
In addition, BDNF levels are affected by nutrition, metabolism and stress, according to experts. Regular physical activity can improve your metabolism. It also helps reduce stress. In one study, patients with depression had lower levels of stress hormones after riding a stationary bicycle for only 15 minutes.
Cycling outdoors can enhance those benefits. Some researchers tested that theory by having cyclists watch a screen that showed a green, leafy environment while participants were riding a stationary bike. This was demonstrated to improve participants’ moods. It also made them feel like the exercise was easier than when they viewed other images on the screen.
Any type of moderate exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Simply walking for 30 to 55 minutes a day a few times a week can increase blood flow by up to 15 percent. In many seniors, however, walking or jogging can stress the joints. Cycling provides a lower impact form of aerobic activity.
It’s never too late to improve your brain health, and just a short bout of cycling can help your brain get the oxygen and other nutrients that it needs. A 2014 study used the same type of brain-scanning technology that is often used to detect early-onset Alzheimer’s and dementia. Those researchers found that blood flow increased during exercise and dropped down to baseline levels after participants stopped the activity. This indicates that getting on the bike periodically throughout the day may help elderly adults’ brainpower more than taking one long ride.
Harvard Health Publishing explains that cycling can also be an ideal exercise for elderly people who have problems with strength and balance. If you can get on and off a bike safely, you should be able to ride a stationary bike without worrying about balance. For people with balance issues, a recumbent bike may be a better alternative.
Tips For Cycling Into Your Senior Years
As you get older, your mobility may be limited. Medical conditions such as arthritis can impair your ability to perform the same types of exercise as you used to. Cycling increases your heart rate but minimizes wear and tear on your body. Still, we have some tips for safeguarding your joints and staying safe while cycling.
Protect Your Knees
Form is important when you’re pedaling. Keeping your knees stable can help you gain more power in your pedal stroke and prevent them from aching when you’ve finished your ride.
If you look at yourself head-on as you ride, you should see a straight line from your shin to your thigh. When your knee rolls inward or pushes outward, the kneecap doesn’t glide smoothly. This could cause problems with your cartilage, especially if you’re already dealing with inflammation.
Keeping your seat farther back can also improve your knee mobility. Sitting too close to the handlebars changes the angle of your knees, potentially causing discomfort as you cycle.
Keep Your Bike In Good Shape
Are you still using the same bike that you used 40 years ago? Make sure that it’s in top condition when you ride. Having it examined and maintained by a professional will help prevent accidents from equipment malfunction.
You should also have an expert assess the bike’s fit. A bicycle that isn’t the right size for you can pose a safety issue and cause undue aches and pains.
If you are using an older bike, you might want to look into purchasing a newer model. Modern bicycles may be lighter and easier to maneuver than older, clunky ones.
You might also want to trade out the seat. A wider saddle will help you stay more comfortable and improve your balance.
Try An Electric Bike
If you need an added boost while you ride, consider using an electric bicycle. These bikes can propel you even if you don’t pedal, but that won’t give you the aerobic exercise that you’re going for. The best way to use an electric bike is to allow it to assist you as you push the pedals.
This can take some of the load off, especially if you’re fatigued. Electric bikes can also help you maneuver through obstacles, such as steep hills.
Ride With Friends
Although exercise is one way to help ward off age-related cognitive decline, so is socialization. Researchers are finding that social interactions can delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease. It also reduces the likelihood of social withdrawal, anxiety and depression. Socializing can even improve your self-confidence, which helps you experience a better quality of life as you age.
If you can’t talk your friends into riding with you, consider joining a bike club. You’ll meet new people and have more motivation to get out there.
Take It Easy
Don’t push yourself too hard while you’re cycling. Choose a route that’s not too strenuous, and don’t ignore the pain. You can improve your endurance and skill by listening to your body and gradually increasing your distance, effort and speed. Check with your doctor if you’re not sure whether cycling is safe for your health.
Dealing With Balance Concerns
If balance is an issue, consider taking a spinning class or riding a stationary bike in a gym, a fitness center or your own living room. Ask for help mounting and dismounting the bicycle if you need it. Once you’re on the bike, keep it at a level that allows you to pedal easily without having to shift your weight.
A recumbent bike or tricycle can also give you the cycling experience that you want without worrying about falling. Recumbent bikes take the load off of your rear end, your hands and your back. Tricycles give you stability so that you don’t have to be apprehensive about maintaining equilibrium.
All cyclists should follow the rules of the road and look out for drivers and obstacles. However, if your vision has declined with age, you might want to take extra precautions. Visit your eye doctor regularly, and wear glasses or contacts if you need them to enhance your vision.
Staying on bike paths that are separated from the roadway can help you remain safe. Choosing paved areas instead of dirt paths can also ensure a smooth ride.
Riding during the day is safer than riding at night even if you have a light or reflectors. Wear bright clothing and a helmet.
Fuel Your Body
Even if you were able to exercise on an empty stomach when you were younger, your body is less forgiving now than it used to be. You might feel dizzy or lightheaded if you don’t fuel up before a ride.
Make sure to consume carbohydrates before you get on a bike. You might even want to bring snacks along with you in case you begin to feel weak. Eating a balanced diet can also improve your cycling performance as you age.
Staying hydrated is also important. Attach a water bottle to your bike or wear a hydration backpack to get sips in while you’re riding without compromising your balance.
Take Rest Seriously
Your body will perform better when you’re getting enough rest. This means that you should be taking care to get plenty of high-quality sleep. If you’re cycling hard a few days a week, make sure that you take some days off. Exhaustion can affect your physical and mental performance, making you more likely to be involved in an accident or suffer an injury.
Whether you’re just getting into cycling or have been participating in the activity for years, don’t assume that you have to stop just because you’re getting older. In fact, if you don’t usually get on a bike, it’s never too late to start.