We all know that biking is good for you—any exercise is good for you—but did you know all the many ways that biking specifically helps your body and mind? You gain more from biking than just the standard 150 minutes per week of recommended exercise your doctor encourages. Biking has been studied in intense detail, and there is a lot of research to show this kind of exercise contributes to overall wellness in a way that many other forms of exercise simply don’t.
1. Increased Brainpower
In the journal of Human Kinetics, researchers studied 3rd and 5th grade students and found that those who were active bikers were more likely to do well in academic achievement. Another study in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that after a routine course of biking for nine months, there was significantly increased brain and behavioral control in executive function. Further studies have shown that biking helps combat the effects of attention deficit disorder (ADD), and in older people, biking has been linked to staving off the effects of Alzheimer's disease.
What other ways can biking affect the mind? A study by the YMCA concluded that people who are active in biking reported 32% higher sense of overall well being than those who did not. This shouldn’t be surprising, as all exercise releases endorphins, the hormones that contribute to a sense of happiness and pleasure. But biking does more than just exercising in a gym or even using a stationary bike in your home: studies link the fact that biking takes place outdoors to an even greater sense of well-being associated with the connection to nature. Riding in nature gives you a chance to connect to a deeper sense of self and contemplate and work through your worries and problems.
Cycling also offers disease fighting benefits in combating Parkinson’s Disease. A study in JAMA showed that vigorous exercise can lower the risk of Parkinsons in men. (There needs to be more research done for women and Parkinson’s.) The study recommended 20 hours of exercise per week, which seems like a small price to pay for overall geriatric health.
But it doesn’t stop at preventing disease. Cycling can contribute to cognitive changes for the better. A 2013 study in Cycling Weekly found that cyclist’s blood flow in the brain rose between 28-70% in specific areas. And after exercise, the blood flow benefits persisted. This increased blood flow leads to better cognition.
2. Biking Promotes Weight Loss
This should seem like an obvious point, but it’s an important one. Biking burns between 400 to 1,000 calories per hour, depending on intensity and rider weight. Since weight loss is a simple equation of more calories burned vs. calories consumed, if you combine biking with a healthy diet, you can definitely shed extra pounds relatively quickly by adopting a regular cycling regimen.
A study in Medical Science Sports Exercise reported that diabetic women who were overweight or obese lost visceral fat—harmful fat that leads to heart attack, stroke, and diabetes—which helped them lose that weight and get to a more overall healthy body condition.
3. Biking Builds Muscle
Biking isn’t merely aerobic and fat burning, but the resistance of biking helps increase muscle mass in glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. Not only does this make you stronger, people with higher percentages of muscle burn more calories even when sedentary.
4. Decreased Risk of Cancer
Maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet rich in leafy greens, lean proteins, and healthy grains all help lower your risk of cancer. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 14,000 men and found that those who were more physically fit in middle age were less likely to get lung and colorectal cancers.
A 2016 study from the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute linked exercise to decreasing 13 kinds of cancer, including colon, breast, endometrial, esophageal, liver, stomach, kidney, and myeloid leukemia. It was also strongly associated with decrease in blood cancers, cancers of the head and neck, rectum, bladder and lung—even in former smokers. This study was a landmark one in that it comprised 1.44 million respondents.
According to the study authors, “The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week (or a combination of these).”
We’re not kidding or exaggerating. A survey of 600 men and women commissioned by the British Heart Foundation found that cyclists were perceived as more intelligent and cooler than other people, and 23 percent said a cyclist would be their preferred blind date.
And there is more to sexiness than just perceptions and appearance. According to Dr. Matthew Forsyth, a urologist from Portland, Oregon, reports that the muscle groups used in biking make for better sex. “All these muscles [worked on the bike] are used during intercourse. The better developed these muscles, the longer and more athletic intercourse will be.”
6. Low Impact
Running is a higher impact sport than cycling, as it’s weight-bearing, and therefore injury rates are higher. Cycling is not weight-bearing. In a study of long distance runners and cyclists, they found that runners suffered 133-144% more muscle damage and 256% more inflammation.
This is not to knock running. There are benefits of weight-bearing exercises, including the fact that strength training comes faster from weight-bearing regimens, but there is no doubt that biking will be better on your joints.
This also translates into faster recovery times. Elderly patients who had knee pain and osteoarthritis found that their condition improved when cycling, as opposed to other exercises. Just spinning for a few minutes a day was a good, low impact benefit to these at-risk groups.
7. Improved Heart Health
Biking is even good for your most important muscle—your heart! A study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise ran a five-year test on 1500 subjects. Those who were active on a daily basis were 31 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure. Another study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that rigorous exercise can lower blood pressure just as effectively as prescription medications can. This isn’t at all a recommendation to stop taking your medicine and ignoring a doctor’s advice, but it’s good to know you can take a two-pronged approach.
8. Better Commutes
We know not everyone has the option of biking to work, but for those who are close enough there are many benefits. For starters, it’s cheaper. You’re saving gas, bus and train fare, parking fees, and upkeep on your vehicle. And short bike trips can actually be faster than navigating through traffic, waiting in jams, finding a parking place and then walking into the office; it can even be faster than waiting for the bus, riding at a slow, continuously-stopping pace, then having to walk the half mile from the bus stop to your office.
9. Better Sleep
A study out of the University of Georgia that tracked subjects from the ages of 20 to 85 over a period of 35 years, found that an activity drop of just 2 percent in men and 4 percent in women led to sleep problems.
According to one of the authors, “The steepest decline in cardiorespiratory fitness happens between ages 40 and 60. This is also when problems of sleep duration and quality are elevated.”
“Exercise can calm anxiety, which is one key cause of insomnia.” This may be due to the positive effect of serotonin in the brain, which comes from exercise. Also, losing weight reduces the risk of sleep apnea, which is another obstacle to getting a good night’s rest.
10. Strengthen The Immune System
In a study at Appalachian State University of 1000 adults, exercise was found to have a profound benefit on health of the upper respiratory system, reducing the instances of things like the common cold.
According to the study: “People can knock down sick days by about 40 percent by exercising aerobically on most days of the week while at the same time receiving many other exercise-related health benefits.”
In a study out of South Africa, it was found that even mild exercise can improve the immune system by increasing essential proteins and activating white blood cells.
The downside is that right after intense exercise, such as an extended race or lengthy ride, the immune system is lowered, but that after recovery through sleep and proper eating this immunity comes back.
11. Longer Life
In a study of elite bikers—Tour de France competitors—it was found that cycling increased racer’s lifespan. On average, the former pro racers lived 81.5 years compared to the general population’s 73.5 years.
We all can’t be professional athletes, of course, but another study of casual bike commuters found that people who switch from a car to a bike gained 3 to 14 months of life. And according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, biking just 60 minutes a week could cut the risk of early death by up to 23%.
12. Less Stress
Of course exercise can reduce stress, but a recent study in the Lancet of more than one million respondents found that biking is one of the most stress-reducing activities. Cyclists experience 21.6% fewer days of poor mental health than those who didn’t ride. This was second only to team sports, which reduced poor mental health by 22.3%, but it was above other aerobic and gym activities. And there are indications that biking with a group can give you the benefits gained through team sports.
In fact, cycling is a great way to spread your social circle. Cycling clubs are common and easy to find through your local bike shops or on the internet, and are a great way to make lasting friends and get positive reinforcement and encouragement.