Cycling and health

As well as providing an excellent form of transport, cycling offers extremely good exercise. Like running and swimming, cycling is an aerobic or oxygen-burning form of exercise. The muscular effort involved encourages your muscles to increase in size and strength, and improves their ligamentous attachments to the bones. Muscles of posture are strengthened, which may help to prevent low backache. The muscles of the belly are also strengthened. The body’s maximal oxygen uptake and capacity for work are increased gradually, so it is possible to use cycling as a steady, comfortable and safe way to build up your fitness and physical stamina and strength.

Health benefits of cycling

As with any kind of aerobic exercise, cycling benefits the body most when it gives the muscles, the circulation, the lungs and the heart a slightly increased workload for an extended period to time at regular and relatively frequent intervals. After a week or two of regular cycling you will start to notice that doing things which used to raise your pulse rate to, say, 120 beats per minute, only raises your pulse to 100 or 110. The benefit is, of course, more than just a reduced heart rate: this is an indication that the heart and circulation as well as the oxygen-uptake ability of the lungs are functioning better. Breathing in general will benefit as the lungs become accostumed to expanding more and as the respiratory passages also clear. The pleasure to be gained from taken a really deep breath of fresh air is well known. One note of caution, however: the real benefits of cycling will not be felt if it is done in heavy traffic, because some of the improvements to health will be offset by the effects of breathing air polluted with smoke, carbon monoxide and lead. Because of the way the body moves when cycling, the abdominal organs can also benefit from an ‘internal massage’, which can help relieve digestive problems or constipation.

Your new fitness will probably improve other aspects of your life too. People who say they feel more confident and self-aware after cycling are not imagining things. Many scientific studies have shown that energetic exercise does indeed induce a mood-lifting change. Regular cycling will help you relax, and it may also improve your thought-power (or at least make your mind seem clearer), which could be among the reasons an increasing number of people choose to cycle to work, rather than use their cars or public transport.

The beneficial effect of cycling depends as much on the distance you travel as on the velocity. It is only when cycling at a speed of over 15 miles an hour that you use more calories than when you are walking. For burning excess calories with a resultant weight loss, you have to ride fast for a considerable amount of time each day. To lose 100 grams of body fat, more than 4 hours of strenuous cycling is needed. It follows that cycling for just half an hour or an hour a day will not only improve your general health and fitness but will also keep your weight in check – provided, of course, that the increased appetite does not lead to a drastic increased food intake.

Bikes and fittings

Unlike running or swimming, when you cycle your body has to combine with a machine. To derive the maximum benefit from the exercise therefore, it is important to make sure you ride the correct size of bicycle – it is as important as the right shoe-size. You should be able to straddle the frame comfortably with your feet flat on the ground; adjust the seat height and position for maximum pedalling comfort with the balls of your feet on the pedals. Soreness and pains in the pelvis and seat can be minimized with an orthopaedi-cally engineered ‘health saddle’. There is some evidence that men who cycle very much may become impotent. This – reversible – effect is probably the result of not very well adapted saddles. The type and model of machine to choose – three-, five-, or ten-speed gears; high or low-cost – depend on your budget, and on how seriously you intend to take the exercise. A cycle shop will give good advice. If you intend to use a child carrier, the safest choice is one mounted on the rear of the bicycle with a safety belt and leg-shields.

Problems, and how to prevent them

Cycling puts heavy demands on your leg, back and abdominal muscles and to some degree also on your neck. You may find it beneficial to carry out exercises to improve these muscles before you begin cycling in earnest. To improve the efficiency of the hamstring muscles of the legs, try toe-touching exercises. Keep your feet together and your legs straight, and try to touch your toes with your fingers without bending your knees.

The muscles of your neck will feel the strain of cycling if you keep your head bent low over the handlebars. To avoid a strain in the neck, you could carry out a series of neck turns, simply twisting your head from side to side. Try doing these exercises in the mornings and evenings.

The muscles of your abdomen may also benefit from precycling exercise. The familiar sit-up exercise is best. Lie down on the floor with your hands behind your head. Try to pull yourself up into a sitting position. The exercise is easier if you bend your legs slightly.

Cyclists tend to get one particularly painful condition: a sport-biker’s knee. This is due to the extreme force with which the knee cap is pressed against the knee-joint. It can be caused by incorrect positioning of the feet on the pedals or by using too high a gear. One way of dealing with the problem is to use cleats (footstraps) which secure the feet in the correct position.

Cycling tips . If you are to get maximum benefit from the exercise, it is important to begin gently at first. . Try to get into a pedalling rhythm which you can keep up for an hour without completely exhausting yourself. In this way you should be able to cycle for an hour each day without having to rest for a day or two because of painful muscles. . Within six weeks you should be able to increase your performance by at least 100 per cent. . If you feel your leg muscles are letting you down, a simple exercise called leg lifts can help to improve them. All you need is a bucket holding about 2 kg of weight – two bags of sugar, for instance. Sitting down, lift the bucket from the floor using your foot. Hold the weight for two seconds and then lower it to the ground. . The best effect is obtained when you avoid too great and irregular efforts. Cycling half an hour every day is to be preferred to a strenuous tour once a week. . It is a good idea, however, to vary your speed and try to reach ‘your limits’ for a couple of minutes.

Cycling safety . If you have a heart condition or are over 30, consult your doctor before starting regular cycling. . Wear a cyclist’s crash-helmet at all times. Cyclists are extremely vulnerable road users, and risk a fractured skull and brain damage without a helmet. . Never cycle when the weather is very hot. Cycling generates a good deal of heat and you could end up suffering sunstroke . . During large tours drink a lot of water – preferably in small amounts at regular intervals. . After climbing a hill it is better to cycle down in a high gear, rather than freewheeling down the slope.

Otherwise you may run the risk of cooling down too much and catch a cold. . For the same reason it is unwise to drink very cold beverages when you are hot. . Be alert at all times and obey the rules of the road.

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