Cycling to health

Like all forms of moderate intensity exercise, regular cycling (3 to 5 times a week for a total of 150 minutes) will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and improve your overall health, and may even reduce the risk of some forms of cancer. Cycling will improve your endurance and aerobic capacity, as well as toning various muscle groups like the calves thighs and back. An hour of cycling can burn anything between 250 and 700 calories (1046 and 2930 kilojoules) depending on the intensity. It is also an excellent stress reducer.

For those who may be overweight and/or have joint problems which make it difficult for them to do weight-bearing exercise, such as jogging, cycling is a good fitness option.

Possible medical benefits of cycling

Regular cycling at a healthy level can have a beneficial effect on many of the body’s organs and systems.

The heart and circulatory system

When you exercise your heart needs to beat faster and more powerfully to pump more blood around your body in order to supply enough oxygen to your muscles so that they can do the work. At rest your heart normally pumps about 4 litres of blood per minute, but during moderate aerobic activities such as cycling, this increases to approximately 20 litres of blood per minute. This increase is achieved by your heart beating faster and more powerfully so that it pumps out more blood with each beat.

Exercising your heart in this way will make it bigger and stronger, just as your biceps get bigger when you exercise them. This kind of exercise will also prevent the build up of fatty deposits (atheroma) in the arteries of your heart (the coronary arteries), which is why people who take part in regular physical activity have a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease compared with those who don’t.

Blood pressure

Regular aerobic activity such as cycling can prevent or delay the development of high blood pressure and in people who already have high blood pressure it can reduce it.

Cholesterol

Regular aerobic exercise can lower your total cholesterol levels, as well as improving your cholesterol profile by increasing the ratio of ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol) to ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) in your blood.

Brain

People who take part in regular exercise tend to have lower body fat and better lipid (blood fat) profiles than others. This means they are less likely to develop arterial disease, which is a risk factor for stroke.

Muscles and joints

With regular exercise, the capacity of your muscles will increase, making everyday activities easier. The muscles will also become more toned and they become better at taking up glucose, which reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. For older people, exercise improves muscle strength, coordination and balance, which lessens the likelihood of falls. It also improves joint mobility and lubrication.

For arthritis sufferers, gentle cycling may help lessen joint pain and swelling and increase flexibility.

Skin

One of the skin’s major functions is to regulate your body temperature, and during cycling, blood flow to the skin increases to rid the body of heat. Regular exercise of this type will improve your capacity to regulate your temperature in warmer conditions.

Lungs

The slight increase in blood carbon dioxide levels that occurs during exercise will cause your breathing to become faster and deeper (an increase in lung ventilation). This action also increases the delivery of oxygen into the lungs, which can then be taken up by the blood to supply the additional oxygen needed by the body. Regular aerobic exercise like cycling will improve your lung ventilation and efficiency.

There is also evidence that moderate intensity activities such as cycling may reduce the risk of lung cancer.

References

1. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Physical activity guidelines [Website]. Updated March 2009. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines#guidelines_adults (accessed April 2010).
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Physical activity for everyone [Website]. Updated March 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html (accessed April 2010).
3. Cavill N, Davis A. Cycling England. Cycling and health: what's the evidence. Updated Jan 2009. Available from: http://www.dft.gov.uk/cyclingengland/health-fitness/health-benefits-of-cycling/ (accessed April 2010).
4. Lee I-M, Sesso HD, Paffenbarger RS. Physical activity and risk of lung cancer. Intl J Epidemiology 1999; 28: 620-25.

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