Two-wheelers aren't just for kids. Adult cyclists get health
benefits, but want safety and comfort, too.
Cycling is more forgiving and inviting than many other forms of
exercise. People turn to it partly because it's not as hard on
the knees as running and it's usually more convenient than
swimming. Heavier people often do well on bikes because cycling
isn't a weight-bearing activity, so there's little penalty for
Pedaling a bike strengthens the leg muscles, especially the
quadriceps that form the top of the thigh. But for the most part,
cycling is an aerobic, not a resistance, workout — the kind of
exercise that gets you breathing harder and your heart rate up
and pays cardiovascular dividends. The cardiovascular effects of
running and cycling are pretty similar, although running may make
the heart work a little harder. In trained triathletes, the
maximum heart rate while cycling tends to be about six to 10
beats per minute lower than the rate while running.
Cycling stacks up well against other forms of exercise when it
comes to burning calories. A 155-pound person cycling at a fairly
leisurely pace of 10 to 12 miles per hour (mph) will burn about
seven calories a minute. (It's important to specify weight when
talking about calories: heavier people will burn more of them
than lighter people doing the same activity because they have
more mass to move.) A person of the same weight walking at the
brisk pace of 4 mph will burn less than five calories per minute.
And if the cyclist were to pick up the pace and ride at 14 to 16
mph, he or she will burn calories at the same rate as a runner
doing 10-minute miles.
Great way to get to work
But perhaps the biggest advantage cycling has over many other
kinds of exercise, aside from walking, is that it can serve a
utilitarian purpose, doing double duty as a form of
transportation. Researchers and health officials are starting to
look at "active commuting" by bike or on foot as a way for us to
meet physical activity guidelines, which set 30 minutes of
moderate activity most days of the week as the bare minimum and
an hour or more as the threshold for reining in weight gain.
A study in Denmark made active commuting look like a good
cholesterol drug: those who biked or walked to and from work had
higher levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and lower levels of "bad"
LDL cholesterol and triglycerides than those who got there by
Results reported in 2009 in Archives of Internal
Medicine were the good news–bad news variety. As in several
European studies, those who were active commuters had an
assortment of attributes that bode well for wellness, such as a
healthy body mass index and good blood pressure numbers, although
the association was much stronger for men than it was for women.
The bad news is that only 17% of the 2,300 Americans in that
study were active commuters.
The active commuting studies lump biking and walking together, so
you can't attribute all the good results to biking. Another
caveat is the problem of self-selection: people who actively
commute may be (probably are) healthier to begin with and have
other healthful habits. Statistical techniques for controlling
for those factors go only so far.
Making it safer
All the health benefits of cycling won't seem worth it if you get
seriously hurt in a bike accident. National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration statistics show that most years since 2000,
between 700 and 800 Americans have been killed in bike crashes.
Another 40,000 or so are injured, although the number of reported
injuries is probably a fraction of the actual number. The vast
majority of the fatalities from bicycle-related injuries are
caused by accidents involving motor vehicles.
Relative to the 34,000 deaths each year from motor vehicle
crashes (a number that has been declining), the number of bike
fatalities may seem low. But compared with other countries, the
United States is a dangerous place to cycle. An analysis done in
2007 compared rates of cycling injuries and fatalities in this
country to those in the Netherlands and Germany on a per-trip and
per-kilometer-traveled basis. Calculated that way, the risk of
death while cycling was two or three times higher in the United
States than it was in those countries, and the risk of injury
perhaps as much as 30 times greater.
But there are reasons to be optimistic about American cycling
becoming safer — if it isn't already (some of the crash
statistics are quite dated). Studies done in California,
Australia, and Europe show that there's safety in numbers: as
cycling rates go up, the rate of crash-related injuries goes
down. (Keep in mind, though, that even if the rate goes down, the
absolute numbers may increase). Many times drivers will say after
an accident that they never saw the cyclist. Reckless cycling can
be a factor. But when cyclists are few and far between, motorists
aren't in the habit of seeing them on the road. That should
change as the number of cyclists increases.
Cycling is also likely to become safer because of the growing
number of dedicated bike lanes and paths, and bike routes, which
are regular roads that have some accommodations for cyclists. In
2009, a group of researchers at the University of British
Columbia published a review of the research into the effects that
changes in transportation infrastructure can have on bike safety.
They identified five studies that showed that the creation of
bike lanes and routes, on average, halved the number of
bike-related injuries and crash rates. The commonsensical —
street lights, well-maintained roads — also made for safer
cycling. The verdict was split on riding on the sidewalks,
although more studies than not show that it's more dangerous than
riding on the street.
Cyclists themselves can do a lot to make cycling safer. The first
step is to understand that two-wheeled transport isn't a license
to ignore traffic laws. Running red lights and weaving in and out
of traffic is courting disaster. Cyclists in urban areas need to
be wary about cars parked along the side of the street: running
into a car door that has been opened suddenly is one of the most
common ways they get hurt. Of course, drivers need to do their
part and look in their side-view mirrors before opening the door
and getting out of the car.
And there's wearing a helmet. It's true that in cycling-centric
countries like the Netherlands, helmets are neither required nor
expected. On the other hand, head injury poses the greatest risk
to the cyclist, accounting for two-thirds of hospital admissions
and three-quarters of deaths. Case-control studies that compare
cyclists who have been in accidents without a helmet with those
wearing one show that helmet use is associated with fewer head
and brain injuries.
Some researchers have argued that helmets have the perverse
effect of encouraging cyclists to take more risks because they
feel protected, but reviewers have calculated that cyclists would
have to increase their risk-taking fourfold to overcome the
protective effects of helmets, and that doesn't seem likely.
Six basic cycling tips
Making it comfortable
Most of us learned to ride a bike when we were young, so there's
a tendency to view a bike as simple and cycling as an activity
that requires no special skill or training. In many ways, that's
a good attitude. Why overcomplicate matters and put up another
barrier to physical activity? If you're cycling for short
distances, or for longer ones only occasionally, just hopping on
the bike and going shouldn't be a problem.
But increasing numbers of people are cycling for long distances
to commute or as a physically demanding form of recreation. Many
cyclists are participating in charity rides of 100 miles or
longer that require months of training. Bad technique or
positioning or a bike that's the wrong size can make cycling
uncomfortable to the point of pain and eventually result in
High-end bike stores offer bike fitting services that cost about
$100, which will be money well spent if you're cycling a lot. A
full discussion of bike fitting — there are dozens of adjustments
that can be made — and cycling technique is well beyond the scope
of this article, but here are a few problems that arise, possible
causes, and solutions:
Knee pain. Like runners, cyclists can
suffer from patellofemoral pain — pain from inflammation or
tendinitis at the junction of the kneecap (patella) and thighbone
(femur). Possible causes include having the saddle too low or too
far forward or cycling in too hard of a gear, so pedaling is too
strenuous. Pain on the outside of the knee may be caused by
irritation of the iliotibial band, a thick cord of tissue that
extends from the hip bone down the outside of the thigh to the
shin bone (tibia). Causes include a saddle that is too high and
pedaling with toes pointed in.
Low back pain. Causes include a bike
that is too long or handlebars that are positioned too far
forward or too low. The standard recommendation is to keep the
saddle level, but one study showed that tipping it forward by 10
to 15 degrees relieved the back pain of cyclists.
Numb hands and wrists. This problem is
sometimes called handlebar palsy. It comes from putting too much
weight on the hands, so the ulnar nerve that runs from the elbow
to the outside of the hand gets compressed. Raising or shortening
the reach to the handlebars can help, as can changing hand
positions while riding.
Buttock pain. Much of the weight on the
saddle should be on the ischial tuberosities, the "sit bones"
that form the bottom of the pelvis. Some soreness is to be
expected if you're starting to cycle a great deal, but if it's
very painful, the saddle may be too high or may need to be
repositioned forward or backward.
Erectile dysfunction. Whether this is a
genuine problem for cyclists is debatable; study results have
been ambiguous. But a bike saddle is certainly capable of
compressing blood vessels and nerves in the perineum, the area
between the anus and the external genitalia, and perineal
numbness is a common problem. A saddle that's wide enough in the
back to support the ischial tuberosities can help. Standing up
for a few seconds during every 10 minutes or so of riding is
recommended. Lowering the seat may also help.