More than 40 million American adults ride a bike at least occasionally—for exercise, as an environmentally friendly and relatively inexpensive mode of transportation, or just for pleasure. While children have long ridden bikes, adult cycling has waxed and waned in this country over the decades. It seems to be on the upswing again, thanks in part to fledgling federal, state and local efforts to create bike paths and lanes and other amenities. Portland, Oregon, is usually ranked the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. Now bike-sharing programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and other cities are getting more commuters onto bikes.
If you’re a cyclist or thinking of becoming one, here are answers to some questions you may have.
How does cycling compare to other aerobic activities?
Cycling can provide a good cardio workout if you do it vigorously enough. In general, it’s easier to raise your heart rate by running, climbing stairs, or using an elliptical trainer with moving arm bars because these involve more muscle groups; your thigh muscles do almost all the work when you cycle. What’s more, when cycling outdoors, you’re likely to intersperse coasting with pedaling, and you have to stop at intersections, so it’s hard to keep your heart rate up.
Casual cycling may not be a full-fledged cardio activity, but like brisk walking it still provides many health benefits. It is a non-impact activity that can be done by people of all ages and at all fitness levels (except for those with balance problems). At a moderate speed, cycling burns 400 to 500 calories per hour; vigorous cycling can burn more than 800 calories per hour.
Is cycling a weight-bearing exercise, the kind that’s good for bones?
No. Since you are seated and don’t work against gravity and there’s no impact, your bones are not put under the beneficial strain that helps strengthen them. In fact, several studies have found that competitive cyclists have lower bone mineral density at the hip and/or spine than their noncycling counterparts. This is one reason why cycling shouldn’t be your only kind of exercise. For bone health, do some calisthenics, lift weights, hike, play tennis and so on.
Is outdoor cycling better than stationary cycling?
Both have their advantages. Moving through air creates resistance and thus increases your workload, especially when you ride into the wind. If you work up a sweat, it will evaporate better outdoors as the air passes over your skin, thus helping you stay cool. Cycling outdoors exposes you to a variety of terrains and can improve balance and coordination. Plus, many people find cycling in nature more pleasurable and mentally restorative than exercising on a stationary bike.
On the other hand, stationary cycling is safer because you don’t have to deal with traffic, obstacles in the road, bad weather or pollution. It is a better option if you have balance problems. Stationary cycling also makes it easier to focus on your pace and heart rate for a better cardio workout. To make indoor cycling more fun or motivating, you can listen to music or audiobooks or watch TV; it’s not safe to wear earphones when cycling outdoors.
How dangerous is cycling outdoors?
It has its obvious risks—notably accidents involving cars, pedestrians, other bikes and hazardous terrain—especially at night or other times when visibility is poor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bike-related injuries resulted in 515,000 visits to emergency rooms and almost 800 deaths in the U.S. in 2010. But cycling accidents are underreported, especially those that don’t involve a motor vehicle (and thus don’t result in a police report) or aren’t very serious. Most serious injuries are among children, teens and men up to age 24, though the largest number of fatalities is among men ages 45 to 64. Most cycling deaths result from head trauma; thus, bike helmets are essential. Alcohol and cycling don’t mix: Nearly one-fourth of people killed while cycling are intoxicated.
That said, the health benefits far outweigh the risks. For instance, a 2010 Dutch study in Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that if 500,000 people switched from cars to bikes for short trips on a daily basis, the cumulative lifetime gain from the beneficial effects of exercise would be 338,000 years, while the loss from traffic accidents would be 9,600 years, and from air pollution exposure during cycling, 28,000 years.
Moreover, not all cyclists are at equal risk. Proper training can make cycling safer. There is usually increased safety in numbers—that is, when there are more bikes around, drivers tend to be more aware of them. Cyclists, like drivers, should obey traffic rules and, to be on the safe side, should assume that drivers don’t see them or may ignore them. We have a long way to go before American cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians learn to coexist as well as they do in cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where cycling is a basic mode of transportation.
A Sore Subject
Many people don’t cycle because they find bike saddles uncomfortable. Pressure from the saddle can cause numbness and pain in the genitals and perineum (between the genitals and anus) as well as nerve damage and sexual dysfunction, in both men and women. Here are some ways to avoid or minimize these
Published April 21, 2014