Benefits of Cycling for Health and Fitness
As a former elite triathlete, I’ve spent more time in the saddle (the bike saddle, that is) than I care to remember. Hour upon hour up and down mountains, through countryside and towns, cranking away on the pedals. That might sound like a cool gig—and it was for a time—but those training sessions slowly wore down my body to the point where I eventually had to walk away from triathlon.
It was a long time before I could enjoy being on a bicycle again. That’s a shame because bicycling is fantastic for many reasons. Commute or run errands on your bike, and you start and end your workday with physical activity, reduce your carbon footprint, and never need to find parking. Mountain biking gets you out into nature, hitting trails you might never reach by foot. Road cyclist ride in packs and then relax at the coffee shop or pub after, so they are getting social interaction along with exercise (the benefits of which are somewhat mitigated by the beer…).
My current passion is fat tire biking on the beaches of Miami. It delivers an outstanding workout entirely unlike Ultimate Frisbee and standup paddling, my other favorite activities. You can’t beat flying down the beach, the air coming off the ocean, sun on your skin. Riding in sand is surprisingly technical. You have to stay completely engaged in what you’re doing. I return home sandy and exhilarated, feeling sharp rather than depleted like I used to be after my long, grueling training rides. I love it.
Suffice it to say, I’m back on the biking bandwagon. Biking is mostly great—with a few downsides. Let’s discuss.
Benefits of Biking
Cycling Builds Fitness
Biking will net you the same health benefits as any other form of cardiovascular exercise:
- Fat burning
- Muscle building
- More endurance
- Improved heart disease risk markers like triglycerides, HDL, and blood pressure1
- Better cognitive function
- Improved insulin sensitivity2
- More positive mood, mental health, and overall well-being
That’s true whether you prefer biking indoors or outdoors, on roads or trails.
A nice, leisurely ride provides low-level aerobic activity that I’m always going on about. You can easily dial the intensity level up or down on a bike, especially when cycling indoors. Just turn the resistance knob, and you’re riding up a hill. Pedal as hard as you can for 20 or 30 seconds, and voila, you’re sprinting. (For safety reasons, I don’t recommend doing bike sprints outdoors. It’s too easy to hit a rock or root and go flying.)
However, cycling shouldn’t be your only form of exercise. You’re not going to get a full-body workout from cycling since your legs do most of the work. The rest of the body is engaged too—core for balance and stability, upper body to hold yourself upright unless you’re riding a recumbent bike—but it’s definitely lower-body dominant.
You get more and different muscle activation by occasionally standing in the pedals (safer on stationary bikes). Likewise if you’re doing something like aggressive mountain biking where you’re working hard to control the bike with your whole body. But biking is never going to take the place of resistance exercise. It’s still important to lift heavy things.
Can Cycling Ever Be “Chronic Cardio?”
Absolutely, any form of cardiovascular exercise can veer into chronic territory.
If you don’t know, chronic cardio is my term for cardiovascular exercise that is too hard, too frequent, done too often, or all of the above. Instead of imparting the desired cardiovascular health benefits, it is depleting, pro-inflammatory, and physiologically stressful. Chronic cardio leads to injury, illness, and burnout if you’re not careful.
If you’re riding most days and keeping your heart rate pegged in the so-called “black hole”, where it’s too high to be considered aerobic but not high enough to be truly high-intensity, you’re doing chronic cardio. No question about it. Indoor spin classes where an enthusiastic instructor urges you to push harder and “leave it all on the bike” are especially likely to be chronic cardio, particularly if you’re going more than once or twice a week.
To avoid chronic cardio on your bike, the usual rules apply:
- Do the majority of your cycling at aerobic heart rates.
- Strategically add intensity. When it’s time to go hard, go hard, but keep it brief.
- Balance stress and rest, listen to your body, and take time to recover between hard rides.
Is Cycling Safer Than Running?
It depends on what you mean by “safer.” Cycling is lower impact than running, which is both good and bad. While cycling might be easier on the body, higher-impact load-bearing exercise does more to promote bone mineral density. On the other hand, lower-impact cycling is often better for people who are rehabbing injuries. It’s also a safer option for folks who can’t do high-impact exercise due to osteoporosis or other issues.
With cycling, your body is held in a more or less static position. Sure, you can change your grip on the handlebars, drop into aero if you have aerobars, or occasionally stand up, but the basic body position and leg rotation stays fairly constant. Bike posture can be hard on your lower back, shoulders, and neck with the weight of your helmet. Overuse injuries can and do occur with cycling thanks to the repetitive movement.3 It’s not much different than running in that regard.
Also, the risk of serious, even catastrophic, injury is considerably greater on the bike. If you fall while trail running, you’re probably walking away with skinned knees and a bruised ego, maybe a broken wrist. Going over your handlebars while you’re bombing down a mountain on your bike will land you in the hospital.
Biking Lets You See the World
When you’re out on your bike, whether on pavement or dirt, you have to pay attention to the world around you. You can’t zone out like you might while walking or riding a stationary bike. You have to be vigilant, watching for cars, potholes, rocks, roots, or rogue squirrels looking to take you out. Mountain biking, cyclocross, and even fat tire biking require you to think about your next move and look for the best track.
It taps into our primal nature to be out in our environments, scanning for danger, keeping our eyes and ears trained on what’s happening around us.
Riding in a car might get you where you’re going faster, but all you’ll see are the cars in front of you and the world whizzing by. Walking allows you to take in your surroundings, but you won’t get to your destination any time soon. Biking offers the best of both worlds.
Benefits of Indoor Versus Outdoor Cycling
I unquestionably prefer riding outdoors, but indoor cycling has some distinct advantages. You’re not going to crash, for one thing. Riding a stationary bike is safer for people who can’t ride traditional bikes due to balance, coordination, or vision issues, for example.
People are probably more likely to hop on the Peloton for a quick 20-minute spin between meetings than put on all their cycling gear, pump up their tires, and hit the road in that same amount of time. Under-desk cyclers can help counteract the effects of sitting in front of a computer all day.
Furthermore, there’s obviously something about indoor cycling classes that appeals to people. Much credit to my friend Johnny G, who launched the spinning craze 30 years ago. He was really on to something. Dark rooms filled with blaring dance music and sweaty people aren’t really my cup of tea, but to each their own. I know tons of people who love these classes and find the pounding music, plus the social aspect of the group fitness environment, motivating.
(Lest you think I’m just a curmudgeon who can’t handle the SoulCycle revolution, there’s actual cause for concern here. Hearing specialists have been sounding the alarm regarding the ear-splitting noise levels in some spin classes for years. There’s a real danger of hearing loss from prolonged or repeated exposure to music that loud. 4)
Any Downsides of Biking?
Bikes aren’t cheap, although you can find good deals on used bikes. They require regular maintenance. Once you get serious about cycling, you’ll find more and more stuff you “need”—padded shorts and jerseys, clip-in shoes, accessories for your bike, upgraded wheels, new cassettes. None of that is necessary to go for recreational rides on your local bike trail, but I’ve seen more than a few friends fall into this money pit.
As I already mentioned, cycling on the road can be very risky, now more than ever thanks to distracted drivers. The U.S. is notoriously not set up for biking. I envy those of you who live in bike-friendly areas. Here, “bike-friendly” usually means a narrow, unprotected bike lane on the side of busy roads frequented by drivers who honk and make rude gestures to let you know you’re in their space.
Finally, let’s not forget that biking is active, but it’s also sitting. It’s far better than spending all day in a chair, but you’re doing little to counteract the shortened, tightened hip flexors and relatively weak glutes that result from too much sitting. (Pedaling does utilize the glutes somewhat, but not as much as you might think.) Recumbent bikes and trikes are fantastic options for people who feel safer or better accommodated with the greater stability they offer. Otherwise, I don’t generally recommend them because they keep your body in a typical sitting position, more so than a typical bike.
In any case, I strongly recommend mixing up your activities and getting out of that bent-hip position. Walk, lift weights, swim, do yoga, throw in some Primal Essential Movements, play tag with your kids, do microworkouts, sprint.
Are EBikes Primal?
Someone asked me this recently, and I think it’s an interesting question. Is it “cheating” to have your physical activity augmented by horsepower?
Most eBikes, if you don’t know, still require you to pedal; the motor is there to assist. Others allow you to cruise without pedaling. You can also turn off the motor and ride it like a regular bike. That puts eBikes in a gray area, exercise-wise.
Ultimately, I suspect that eBikes have a lot of the same benefits as regular cycling—and at least one study looking at cognitive function bears that out5—but not all. They have their own advantages and disadvantages, but I wouldn’t classify them as “not Primal.” More like “modern conveniences.”
Bike Safety Tips
I’d love to see more people out biking instead of riding in cars, as long as they do so safely. First and foremost, get to know traffic laws or mixed-use trail etiquette. Follow the rules for your own and others’ safety.
If you must ride on the street, opt for roads with well-defined lanes for cyclists. Wear bright clothing and use reflectors and lights to make yourself as visible as possible. Stay vigilant, and don’t wear headphones or use your phone.
Wear your helmet.
Lastly, ensure that your bike fits you correctly to avoid putting your body in awkward positions that cause undue stress on joints. When you hop into a spin class at the gym, arrive early enough to adjust the bike settings. Ask the instructor to check that you’re set up correctly. If you’re planning to spend a lot of time on your road, tri, or mountain bike, it’s worth spending the money for a professional bike fitting.
You’re ready get out there and explore! Where are your favorites places to bike? Do you have a favorite style of biking?
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