There’s a saying among medical (especially orthopedic) professionals that even when you can’t walk or hobble, you can still ride a bike. You can do it if you have bad knees. You can do it if you have bad hips. You can do it if you can’t run more than five feet. Nearly anyone of any fitness level can pedal a bike for five or more miles. Cycling has been found to prevent weight gain (and boost fat loss), fight depression, and help stave off a host of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Those are some of the more obvious benefits, but cycling also offers plenty of other unique health benefits that should get you even more motivated to ride. Here are just a few:
If you’re looking for a quick weight-loss fix, you’re in the wrong place. You’ll lose weight, but those pounds will peel off at a reasonable, steady, and, most important, sustainable pace. Even at a recreational pace of about 13 to 15 miles per hour, you burn around 500 to 600 calories in one hour, or about 4,000 calories per week—enough to burn off more than a pound a week if you ride about an hour a day. Cycling also sparks metabolic and physiological changes that turn you into a highly efficient fat and carbohydrate burner all day long.
Cycling also coaxes your body to continue burning fat and calories for hours after you’ve racked your bike. For one, while you’re riding, your LPL (lipoprotein lipase, a fat-shuttling enzyme) activity goes into high gear, and it remains elevated for a full 30 hours after you’ve stopped riding. After a ride, your body—hence your metabolism—is still revved up, working to replenish and (if you worked really hard that day) repair your muscles. As you get fitter and stronger, your basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the calories you burn by just living—goes up. Getting just 30 to 45 minutes of exercise most days of the week can boost your BMR and keep it in the up position permanently.
The end result is fat loss—and lots of it. Even better, you’ll lose it first where you want it least, in your belly, where it smothers your organs and leads to heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases. In one study of 24 men and women with diabetes, those who biked 45 minutes three times a week for 8 weeks decreased their visceral fat (the deep belly fat) by a staggering 48 percent.
Cycling is a cardiovascular activity, so it goes without saying it makes your heart stronger and healthier. Exercise like cycling also makes your skeletal muscle more insulin-sensitive, so you’re better able to control your blood sugar level—something scientists now know is essential for clear arteries and good heart health. The overall protective impact cycling has on your heart is pretty impressive. The British Medical Association reports that cycling just 20 miles a week slashes your risk of coronary heart disease in half when compared with staying sedentary.
Neuroscientists think of exercise as Miracle-Gro for the brain because it’s a powerful, neuron-building stimulant that works remarkably fast. Exercise that raises your heart rate, like cycling, dramatically increases the production of nitric oxide (a potent vasodilator) and neurotrophins (growth factors) such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor and a protein aptly named noggin, which promotes stem cell division and new brain cell formation.
The end result is that cycling will give you better, sharper memory skills, stronger concentration ability, more fluid thinking and reasoning, and greater problem-solving abilities. All this brain-health building also protects you from age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of sleep. Your body and brain heal while you rest. Without enough sleep, your hormone levels (especially stress hormones) get out of whack, and you’re more likely to overeat and gain weight, as well as have more mood disorders and lowered immunity. In one of the most striking studies on the subject, the sleep habits and body-weight trends of 68,000 women were studied over a period of 16 years. The researchers found that those who slept only 5 hours a night were 32 percent more likely to gain 33 pounds or more over the course of the study compared with their peers who slept 7 hours a night.
Regular aerobic exercise like cycling promotes quality sleep even among those who struggle to get their shut-eye. In a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, previously sedentary insomnia suffers who started cycling just 20 to 30 minutes every other day reduced the amount of time it took to fall asleep by half and increased their total sleep time by nearly an hour.
You rarely see someone finish a ride grumpy. To the contrary—they’re usually grinning from ear to ear. Cycling lifts your spirits—nearly immediately. In one study from Bowling Green State University, researchers found that as little as 10 minutes of cycling improved the mood in a group of volunteers compared with their peers who just relaxed for the same amount of time.
Undoubtedly, part of cycling’s mood magic results from its de-stressing effects. Exercise, such as pedaling a bike, burns off excess adrenaline you’ve built up during meetings with the boss and the hassles of the day; it also slows the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to weight gain. Cycling also boosts the production of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine. For some people, it can work as well as antidepressants. Even better, research shows that by doing regular vigorous exercise, you’re less likely to develop anxiety disorders and depression to begin with.