19 Benefits of Cycling
There is no doubt among cyclists that there are many benefits to be gained from regular bike riding. Many people ask “is riding a good exercise?”. The answer is: absolutely yes! The health benefits of cycling range from not only your own physical and mental health but all the way to the health of our planet.
In this article, we’re going to explain why it’s not only good, but great, and outline the ways in which its benefits can positively affect other areas of the life of a cycling enthusiast.
Whether you are a curious casual rider, or a beginner looking for a reason to push through those tough initial rides, we hope you find some inspiration among these 19 benefits, so you can continue improving your life, the planet, and maybe even the lives of those around you.
Image Courtesy: Pexels.com / Unsplash.com
1. Weight Management
One of the most common reasons people begin exercising is to lose weight or shed unwanted body fat.
Cycling is an excellent way to burn calories and lose excess body fat when included as part of a healthy lifestyle. Recent scientific research suggests that exercising before eating breakfast can boost fat burning compared to exercise done after eating.
Exercise also positively affects other key aspects of one’s life, like stress-levels and sleep quality, the quality of which directly impacts weight management. Check out our article on cycling nutrition to learn how to fuel your rides the right way.
By maintaining a healthy weight, you protect yourself from early-onset diseases like cancers and cardiovascular disease, which are currently the number one cause of death in the USA. A healthy weight also allows for better brain (cognitive) function.
2. Boost Fitness
Cycling as exercise improves overall fitness and endurance in everyday life.
Different styles of cycling have different effects on the body. Short bursts of high-intensity cycling (such as HIIT) will increase your ability to create high power for short periods, similar to weightlifting, where lower intensity cycling will increase endurance for less strenuous activity.
As your endurance on the bike improves, so will your ability to complete and enjoy daily activities like playing with your kids in the park, taking the stairs at your office, helping a friend move, or simply running to catch a bus.
This overall feeling of fitness is partly due to your body’s improved ability to utilize oxygen (your VO2 max), meaning it takes you longer to get out of breath. The strength of your VO2 max is a strong predictor of all-cause mortality (non-accidental death) meaning the stronger it is, the more you can delay the onset of terminal illnesses.
3. Nurture Heart Health
The heart is one of two organs that benefit most profoundly from cycling.
The heart, as a muscle, can be trained like any other muscle in the body. If you stress it with exercise like cycling, which makes your body require more oxygen, your heart will have to pump (beat) faster and harder to deliver the extra oxygen needed by the body to perform, resulting in growth and strengthening during recovery, similar to how your bicep grows from bicep curls.
As heart disease is the leading cause of death in many countries including the USA, the importance of a strong heart is unquestionable. Public health experts recommend that people get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week for optimal health.
4. Boost Lung Function
The second organ that benefits the most from cycling, the lungs, works in conjunction with the heart to do most of the work of moving oxygen around the body.
Cardio training improves lung efficiency at this, essentially increasing the speed at which oxygenated blood reaches the rest of the body, allowing a cyclist to go longer and harder on their rides.
5. Increase Leg Strength
Apart from the heart and respiratory muscles, cycling is an excellent way to increase strength in the leg muscles, primarily the glutes and quadriceps, as well as the calf muscles and hamstrings.
Cycling at a high resistance (up a hill, against the wind, or very fast) builds muscle size and tone at a higher rate than low-intensity cycling. Improved strength in the glutes and leg muscles will not only make cycling easier but also many other day-to-day activities and exercises.
Cyclists will be happy to know that positive changes to muscular strength are associated with a lower risk of early death from all causes.
Due to the strengthening benefits of cycling, improvements to balance are also common among those who cycle regularly, at least one hour per week. This is vital for reducing the risk of falls which carries a higher risk as we age.
6. Low Impact
Cycling is a low-impact form of exercise, meaning it is less demanding on the joints and bones compared to other forms of exercise like running, weight lifting, and other sports. This characteristic of cycling makes it especially appealing to older age groups, those who struggle with joint issues, or as a means to maintain fitness while recovering from certain injuries.
Cycling helps increase blood volume to the lower body in a non-threatening way, as well as strengthening the muscles around the joints without excessive pressure. Cycling is used as a treatment for osteoarthritis of the hip as it helps with “addressing and improving extension impairments in the hip, knee and ankle joints.”
7. Easy for Beginners
Cycling can be done at efforts ranging from gentle to maximum intensity. This broad range means that it is perfectly suited to individuals of any fitness level. Beginners can hop on a bike, ride 5 miles over flat ground at a comfortable pace, and still receive most of the health benefits associated with the activity.
Cycling ticks all the boxes as an entry-level activity when compared to other common cardio activities. For example, running is tough and demanding when starting out regardless of pace, whereas swimming is more challenging technically and dependent on access to water.
Cycling can be done enjoyably by those with zero fitness all the way to elite athletes, with the same piece of equipment, leaving little barrier to entry for aspiring cyclists.
8. Improve Mental Health & Mood
While the physical health benefits of cycling are well-known and well-documented in research, in recent years an increasing amount of focus is being shifted to it’s positive effects on mood, depression, and other mental health disorders. Depression is the most common mental health disorder worldwide with an estimated 322 million people currently living with the condition.
These positive effects on mental health have been demonstrated time and time again. One example from Lund University in Sweden is a study of 395,000 people over 21 years of age, which found that “physical activity (4+ hours a week) was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of developing depression, compared to physical inactivity”. The results of this study, and many others like it, are significant, and cycling in situations such as being surrounded by nature, or in a group setting aids in keeping levels of depression low (more on this below) .
For those interested in finding out more about how exercise improves mood and can be used as a treatment for depression, check out Dr. Rhonda Patrick of the FoundMyFitness Podcast and her informative episode on the subject.
9. Reduce Stress
If you experience chronic stress each day, you will understand that it can be both physically and mentally exhausting. Whether it is financial, family, or existential (to name a few), constant stress will interrupt sleep, mood, lead to poor food and exercise choices, and lower your overall happiness.
The negative effects of on-going, high levels of stress have been linked to a decrease in lifespan among both men and women by 2 to 3 years according to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.
Harvard Health Publishing, says that exercise (especially aerobic exercise) helps to alleviate stress by reducing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Natural mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain called endorphins are released during exercise and offer another defense against the stress hormones. The effect of endorphins is most notable during higher intensity, longer duration exercise where individuals experience a euphoric feeling often referred to as a ‘runner’s high’, although this feeling is not just limited to running.
Another potential contributor to the stress-busting effects of exercise is the meditative aspect of some types of exercise, such as low-intensity cycling in rural areas, jogging, and walking. The repetitive motion of these activities can allow the mind to relax and reduce stress-inducing overthinking.
10. Sharpen the Mind & Prevent Cognitive Decline
One of the least-discussed benefits of exercise and cycling is the ability to boost cognitive performance and, most notably, delay cognitive decline.
Roughly 16 million people in the US have age-associated memory impairment, and of those aged 65 and older, 40% show measurable signs of impairment. Researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada demonstrated in a study on 68 adults aged 60-88, that aerobic exercise, and especially high-intensity interval training, has the ability to enhance memory.
These findings were developed further in a study of 2,013 individuals aged 21-84 in Germany, where the participant’s cardio-respiratory fitness was tested on a stationary bike. It identified that those who performed better in the fitness tests had larger grey matter volume in the brain, encompassing regions associated with memory encoding, learning, and decision-making. This is significant as loss in grey matter is a major risk factor for dementia.
And the cognitive benefits of exercise are not limited to adults. Another study focused on overweight 7-11 year-olds where they completed either 20 or 40-minute exercise sessions. The results from standardized tests and brain imaging technology (fMRI) showed improved ability to think, plan, and do the math, with greater improvement seen in those who completed the 40-minute sessions compared to the 20-minute sessions (with no change reported in the sedentary control group).
So instead of cramming for a big test or presentation at work, consider getting out on your bike to supercharge your capacity to think and learn.
11. Boosts Energy
It seems backward, but you can actually increase your energy levels and even feel less tired through low & moderate intensity rides. In fact, sedentary individuals note the greatest benefits from adding exercise to their routine, and there are likely many contributing factors to this improvement.
A regularly referenced study done at the University of Georgia in 2008 quantified these benefits when they gave 36 participants a prescription of either low or moderate-intensity exercise for 20 minutes, 3 times a week. The low-intensity group experienced the greatest benefits after the 6-week intervention, with a 65% reduction in fatigue compared with 49% in the moderate-intensity group. Both groups noted energy increases of 20%.
They also found that improvements in energy and fatigue didn’t seem to be related to increases in aerobic fitness. One of the researchers, Tim Puetz, said the finding suggests that “exercise acts directly on the central nervous system to increase energy and reduce fatigue”.
12. Reduces Risk of Cancer and Other Diseases
The benefits of bike riding and exercise have been linked numerous times to a lower risk of death from all causes. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and many other diseases appear more frequently in those who do not engage in regular physical activity.
Even among those who use the bicycle as a mode of transport to work each day find significant benefit in overall health. Research on over 30,000 people in Copenhagen, Denmark found that those who did not cycle to work experienced a 39% higher mortality rate than those who did.
A study funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found that women with breast cancer who met the weekly American exercise guidelines before and after cancer treatment had a 55% reduction in cancer return and a 68% reduction in the likelihood of death from cancer. In women who started exercising after cancer treatment began, there was a 46% lower risk of cancer returning and a 43% lower risk of dying from it.
Men undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, the most common cancer for men in the US, reported improved quality of life and health markers, after finishing treatment that was paired alongside an exercise protocol.
13. Fall Asleep Faster
Sleep is vital for mental and physical health. Insufficient sleep (less than 7 hours in a 24-hour period) increases the risk of developing common illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and mental health disorders. In the United States, roughly one-third of people report insufficient sleep regularly, meaning that any way we can improve our sleep is likely to have a benefit to our health.
Many cyclists know the feeling of falling asleep with ease after a ride. Sleep latency is the term for how long it takes to fall asleep once in bed, and this has been shown to decrease the following exercise, meaning that those who have trouble getting to sleep at night may find it easier after some time in the saddle.
A ride in fresh air and morning sunlight is likely to have an added benefit, as early morning light exposure helps to regulate hormones associated with sleep (adenosine, cortisol, melatonin), meaning you can fall asleep easier when night comes.
14. Better for the Environment
Climate change is a relevant and time-sensitive problem that is becoming more and more important to address. Car traffic in cities is a huge contributing factor to pollution levels, and studies have found that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of developing depression and diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. Pollution is linked to 9 million deaths per year worldwide.
Making your normal car journey by bicycle is doable for most people, most of the time. In 2009, the Federal Highway Administration found through their National Household Travel Survey that 76% of trips by the vehicle were under 10 miles. From this survey alone it’s possible to imagine reducing that percentage greatly and improving both our health and the environment along the way.
15. Saves Time & Money
In busy urban areas, cycling can shave time off your journey, reducing time spent in agonizing traffic jams, looking for parking, or stopping for gas.
In relation to money, parking, gas, insurance, and expensive vehicle maintenance add up to large annual expenses whereas cycling only requires one initial investment, with infrequent servicing requirements.
Riding your bike to work, even if it’s just on sunny days, can save both time and money while you accrue the other positive health benefits.
16. Boosts Immune System
Exercise has a positive effect on the body’s immune system, which reduces our likelihood of contracting many illnesses, especially upper respiratory tract infections, like the common cold or flu.
Moderate-intensity exercise for just 60 minutes was shown to increase re-circulation in the body of immune system cells which play a vital part in our defense from infections. One study released following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic identified that “A systematic aerobic training program can prevent the quick spread of the virus from one person to another if our immune system is strong enough. This can be an easy and indispensable way to promote a healthy way of living that may not only prevent communicable diseases but also non-communicable diseases.”
Knowing that your next ride can activate the immune system’s ability to strengthen and adapt to future threats is reassuring and energizing, and is even more pertinent now in the post-pandemic life we must navigate.
17. Socialize & Build Camaraderie
Today’s society can be lonely for many people. On any given day we spend time browsing the internet and social media, fulfilling our busy work life, and tending to family or household responsibilities, leaving little time to exercise, socialize, and relax. As a cyclist, you instantly share a passion in common with a diverse community of individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life. This non-exclusive membership presents opportunities to meet new people and socialize where you’re guaranteed to have at least one thing in common; your love of spending time on two wheels.
Many cities and large towns have cycling groups with individuals of all ages and fitness levels, so finding the right one for you shouldn’t be hard if you know where to look. Checking with your local bike shop, on Facebook, or with a quick internet search should turn up some information on where you can get involved. If those methods fail, you can always approach your local group of lycra-clad cyclists while they sit down for a morning coffee to ask if you can join their next ride.
Cycling as part of a group or with a friend is fun and rewarding. The camaraderie you build as part of a group of passionate cyclists is enough to help form strong and lasting friendships, and the team motivation may translate to performance gains you didn’t know you were capable of.
18. Cross-train with Cycling
The nature of cycling means that it can be as relaxing or demanding as you want to make it. For athletes or those who enjoy other sports and exercise types, cycling is an excellent method of improving your all-around fitness and leg power while giving your joints a rest. For example, someone that wants to run in an upcoming half marathon competition can use cycling to boost endurance without the added stress on the knees of running many extra miles.
If you use cycling to supplement other exercises it will help balance out the overall load on any one body system and decrease the likelihood of developing an overuse injury, like a runner’s knee, which is common in many endurance-based sports.
19. Manage Blood Pressure & Diabetes
Hypertension (high blood pressure) and type 2 diabetes are two common illnesses seen in individuals with metabolic syndrome. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide suffer from metabolic syndrome, with as much 34.7% of the US population living with it as of 2017.
The good news is that physical activity, especially aerobic exercise such as cycling, has been shown to improve outcomes for those who suffer from these illnesses. Cycling can help reduce the amount of medication needed to manage metabolic syndrome. In the case of diabetics, exercise helps manage blood sugar levels, and in some cases helping to lower the need for insulin medication.
Disclaimer: Always consult with a physician before making any change to your routine if you are interested in using exercise as a means to battle symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
What are the Disadvantages of Cycling?
In order to maintain a balanced perspective, we will briefly touch on three drawbacks of cycling. It is clear however that the pros outweigh the cons substantially, but one should be aware of certain aspects of cycling to stay as safe as possible.
- Back, buttocks, and wrist pain – Cycling is especially tough on these specific parts of the body when spending long hours in the saddle. Lots of pressure over time can lead to aches and pains which should be addressed with ample recovery, cross-training, and mobility work (check out our article on injury prevention & recovery).
- It can be expensive – depending on your level of enthusiasm, and the depth of your wallet, cycling can lead to expensive purchases (easily leading into thousands of dollars) whether it’s the latest bike, equipment, or clothing. Yet, it doesn’t have to be if you’re open to buying bikes and equipment second-hand. Also, protecting your bike when you’re out and about by using good security practices will help you to avoid expensive replacements.
- Safety – the number one concern for many people living in urban areas where roads and road users do not protect cyclists. Urban cyclists must learn how to navigate their area safely and follow the rules of the road to limit possible incidents. Check out our tips on safe cycling so you can stay safe on your next ride.