Three ways to bike your way to better health

There’s nothing like the fit body of a Tour de France athlete to make you think, “Hey, maybe I should give cycling a try.” It may not transform your body into that of an elite athlete, but cycling has health benefits for people of most ages and physical conditions, according to Elizabeth Blackburn, DPT, PT, a physical therapist at IU Health Rehabilitation Services.

Here are three reasons to make cycling part of your exercise routine.

  • Joint therapy. As a physical therapist, Blackburn says people who have joint problems often ask her what form of cardio exercise would be good for their condition. “Most people feel fairly comfortable on a bike,” Blackburn says. “Cycling gives good lubrication to your knee joints without adding a lot of weight-bearing stress.”
  • Cardio training. Never underestimate the value of a slow, gentle ride. You don’t have to ride like an Olympic athlete to benefit your heart. “Even if you’re only doing a mile, it’s better than sitting on your couch, watching TV,” she says. She encourages new riders to have their doctors clear them before starting a new exercise program. From a cardio training standpoint, start slowly and work up to an optimal heart rate, which varies from one person to the next.
  • Balance and coordination. Mature adults need to be especially aware of practicing balance and coordination, both of which are challenged by riding a bike. “You have to create some momentum by pedaling at a certain cadence to avoid falling over,” says Blackburn. Keeping a bike upright and balanced also works your core and your lower extremities.

Good form and fit can help you minimize injury and get the most out of your ride. Although there are specialists who offer expert advice on those matters, Blackburn says a good bicycle shop is usually adequate (and less expensive) for casual riders.

One of the most common problems among competitive cyclists is neck pain. Even beginners should be vigilant about their riding postures. “Biking lends itself to a forward head position and tight muscles at the base of the skull, which can cause postural changes even off the bike,” Blackburn says.

If you already have an injury or another obstacle that makes you uncomfortable on an upright bike, consider a recumbent bike. “Recumbents are generally more comfortable for patients who have trouble getting over a bike due to low back pain or weight issues,” she says. Stationary bikes (recumbent or upright) are also an alternative for people who aren’t sure of their balance or don’t feel confident on a regular bike.

Like all good things, too much cycling can brew its own set of problems. “You need to challenge different muscle groups to avoid stressing the same ones over and over again,” she says. Taking a day of rest between rides and incorporating a strength-training program may prevent overuse injuries that stem from riding too long or too often.

Above all, Blackburn says it’s important to wear a helmet—no matter where you ride or how fast you go. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I go really slow,’ and that really has no bearing on a potential head injury that can occur,” she says. “Even if you’re going five miles per hour, it doesn’t matter. It’s how you fall and what you hit that could be potentially damaging.”

If you have an injury that needs to be evaluated, contact Indiana University Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine for an appointment with one of our orthopedic or sports medicine specialists at 317-944-9400. For more information about physical therapy and rehabilitation, visit our site.