What are the health benefits of cycling?

Riding a bike, whether as part of your commute or for fun, has several health benefits. It helps to improve various systems of the body, including your muscular and cardiovascular systems. Cycling can also have a positive effect on your overall health and could even lower your risk for a range of diseases.

What are the health benefits of cycling?

Regarding general health, cycling has several benefits. We'll dive into them in detail below, but here's a quick video summary if you like to digest your information visually.

It works a variety of systems in your body, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, and circulatory systems. It also helps you develop and strengthen muscles all over.

Cycling can also help improve your mental health and might boost intelligence, according to Bicycling. When you're on a bike, your brain is working overtime, even if it doesn't seem like it. You need to stay alert for sudden changes in road condition, whether those changes are a new obstacle or another vehicle that suddenly appears, as if from nowhere.

As Bicycling.com notes, several studies have looked at the connection between cycling and improved brainpower. Some studies have examined its impact on people with Alzheimer's and suggested that cycling might help slow down the progression of the disease. Other studies observed the effect cycling had on children with attention deficit disorders and suggested that biking might help improve attention.

Some studies have examined its impact on people with Alzheimer's and suggested that cycling might help slow down the progression of the disease.

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Harvard Health Publishing notes that the benefits of cycling can have a positive impact on your overall quality of life. Since riding a bike requires a good amount of balance and endurance, that can carry over into other aspects of your life. You might find it easier to complete everyday chores and tasks or that you have increased stamina after you take up cycling.

Compared to other forms of exercise, such as running, bicycling is relatively low impact. That means it is gentle on your bones and joints, making it an ideal training for those who've been injured in the past or for people who are starting to notice stiffness in their joints.

Other health benefits of cycling include:

  • Improved mood, thanks to the production of endorphins
  • Improved heart health - one study showed that even short rides helped reduce the risk for high blood pressure.Lower stress levels.
  • Lower stress levels and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Better posture and overall better spinal health from better developed lower back muscles
  • Lower levels of overall body fat (cycling burns quite a few calories)
  • Lower rates of serious diseases, like cancer and cardiovascular disease, and lower rates of death overall

What does cycling do to your body?

Cycling isn't just for your legs. It's a whole-body activity, and some of the effects may not be positive. Let's take a look at how cycling changes specific systems or areas of the body. 

Affects of cycling on the body

Muscles

Although you might assume that cycling only helps to develop the muscles in your legs, it's a total body workout. Staying upright and balanced on the bike helps to strengthen and tone the muscles in your abdominal area, for example, and steering the bike helps you build up the muscles in your shoulders and arms.

Let's not forget about the leg muscles; they do play a pivotal role when it comes to bicycling. According to Harvard Health, you use the gluteus maximus muscles (your butt muscles), your quads (in the thighs) and your calf muscles when pushing down on the pedals of a bike. When you're in the upstroke or back-stroke part of pedaling, you're using your hamstrings (at the back of the thighs) and flexor muscles in your hips.

Bones

If there's one area of the body where the benefits of cycling are less clear, it's in the health of the bones. Harvard states that biking can help improve bone density because of the resistance created when you pedal.

Other studies, such as on one reported in the New York Times, suggest otherwise. These studies revealed that pro cyclists, the types who are racing in the Tour de France and other major events, are more likely than other athletes to have low bone density. Some of the cyclists in the studies had osteopenia in their spines, which is just one notch away from osteoporosis.

...studies revealed that pro cyclists, the types who are racing in the Tour de France and other major events, are more likely than other athletes to have low bone density.

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Several factors, not just cycling, can affect your bone health and density. For example, in the studies, the cyclists with the frailest bones tended to be relatively skinny. They were also intense cyclists who didn't do any other form of training.

If you're super skinny to begin with and suddenly start training hours a day on a road bike, you might want to have your bones scanned to get an idea of their density. But if you're a relatively muscular person who doesn't plan on adopting an intense cycling training schedule, you probably don't have to worry about your bones.

If you are concerned about osteoporosis or other bone health issues, your best bet is to speak with a doctor.

Joints

One of the reasons why cycling can be so rough on the bones is because it is relatively easy on the joints. In fact, cycling is often recommended for people with arthritis, since it doesn't put much pressure on the joints.

When you ride a bike, whether it's an indoor, stationary bike or an outdoor bike, you put most of your weight on the hips, since you are sitting. Cycling can also help improve your knee joints, according to Dr. Weil, since it strengthens the muscles around the knees without putting force or pressure on the joints.

Heart & Blood Vessels

Most forms of exercise have a positive effect on the heart, including cycling. According to Bedford Borough Council, those who don't exercise have the same risk of a heart attack as people who smoke a full pack of cigarettes daily.

When you pedal your bike, your heart begins to pump blood into the legs, so that the muscles there get enough oxygen to prevent cramping. Riding regularly helps to strengthen your heart so that it's able to pump blood efficiently.

Cycling and Specific Health Concerns

Will cycling help cure or treat specific health concerns, such as obesity or cancer? While hopping on your bike can help improve your overall health, and some studies suggest a link between cycling and improvement of certain health conditions, it's important not to look at biking as a cure-all. That said, some of the correlations between cycling and better health are encouraging.

Obesity

Cycling can help you lose weight, especially when combined with a healthy diet. As Better Health Victoria points out, if you cycle for 30 minutes a day, every day, you can burn up to 5kg of fat annually. For the average person, an hour of bike riding burns about 300 calories.

While cycling alone might not be able to cure obesity, it can help to reduce the risk of a person putting on a significant amount of weight. A study that compared rates of walking and cycling to obesity rates in various cities around the world found that cities with higher levels of walking and cycling had lower obesity rates than cities where people were mostly dependent on cars.

Cancer

In the Spring of 2017, a study from the University of Glasgow suggested that people who commuted by bike had a 45 percent lower risk of cancer. Media outlets jumped on the story, lauding cycling as a miracle for reducing cancer risk

So, is it? Not necessarily. While people who bike are likely to have a lower risk for cancer, the act of cycling itself isn't going to keep you from getting cancer. Instead, it's the act of engaging in a healthy behavior that will help improve your health and lower your cancer risk.

Diabetes

Being physically active can also help to lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. So if you have a family history of diabetes, getting in the habit of riding a bike can be one way to reduce your risk, along with eating a healthy diet.

If you've already been diagnosed with diabetes, cycling can also help. According to the American Diabetes Association, 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (like cycling) five days a week helps your body use insulin better. The ADA recommends cycling as a form of aerobic activity.

Heart Disease

A 2011 study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that cycling could help lower risk for heart disease by 11 percent. When you ride, your heart pumps blood to your legs, which not only strengthens the heart, it also improves blood flow and helps to regulate blood pressure.

People who cycle regularly are also more likely to have a lower resting heart rate than those who don't. That means that the heart can function without working so hard, which is a good sign of heart health.

How many calories can you burn cycling?

There are 3,500 calories in a pound of fat. For every pound you want to lose in body weight, you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you take in. The more active you are, the more calories you need to eat to maintain your weight.

For example, a sedentary woman typically needs just 1,400 calories daily while a sedentary man needs 2,000, according to Bicycling.com. Meanwhile, the average female cyclist burns at least 2,000 calories daily while the average male cyclist burns at least 2,200 calories per day.

...the average female cyclist burns at least 2,000 calories daily while the average male cyclist burns at least 2,200 calories per day.

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How many calories you burn while cycling depends on a variety of factors, including your age, weight, sex and how long you work out. This calculator helps to take some of the guesswork out of figuring out how many calories you'll burn during a ride.

How to Add Cycling to Your Life

Now that you know about the benefits of cycling, the next step is to figure out how to add it to your life. Starting any new habit, whether it's exercise-related or not can be tricky.

The great thing about cycling is that even if you start small, you'll still see significant benefits. If you live within a few miles of your job, try cycling there instead of taking public transit or driving. If biking to work isn't an option, try to cycle when running your errands. Even a 10-minute bike ride to the store or post office is an excellent way to make cycling part of your routine.

If you absolutely can't ride outdoors or are finding it difficult to get going, give indoor cycling a try. You can hop on a stationary bike while watching your favorite TV shows.

Long-Term Benefits of Cycling

Over the long term, cycling doesn't just provide benefits to your health. You'll also most likely start to see it benefit your finances as well. For example, it's a lot cheaper to bike to work than it is to drive a car or take public transit.

Cycling is also something you can do at pretty much any age. Even if you haven't ridden a bike since you were 10, you'll find that you didn't forget how. Plenty of people start cycling again in middle age or even later and realize that "you never forget how to ride a bike" really is true.

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