More Than Activity: The Hidden Health Benefits of Cycling

Canada, Healthy Living

by Mark Seinen, Planner, Alta Planning + Design

 At some point during the course of a bicycle transportation project, a planner will be asked, “why cycling?” The tried-and-true response to this question is to outline the benefits and costs of investing in cycling. Planners have no shortage of ammunition on this topic—cycling is green; cycling is affordable; cycling is good for retail business—and yet, when it comes to health benefits, we haven’t been pulling out the big guns.

When I think about riding a bicycle, the first benefits that jump to my mind (and I suspect many others’ as well) are health and fitness. Yet too often the health benefits of cycling are getting short shrift, relegated to a few sentences about the generic benefits of physical activity or—even worse—only acknowledged to the extent that cycling can burn calories.

Cycling certainly is healthy (few dispute the idea), but that doesn’t mean that planners are doing a good job of articulating why. In fact, the general acceptance of the notion that cycling is good for the body probably contributes to the cycling-health link being taken for granted, focusing planners on more elusive and controversial issues like economic impact. The result is that we have overlooked some of the more obvious and direct benefits of cycling.

With this post I want to suggest some avenues for planners to begin thinking and talking about health benefits that go beyond a vague appeal to “physical activity.” By doing so, we can tell a more compelling story about cycling that will resonate with community members, business stakeholders and political leaders.

The standard story

The standard story of the cycling-health connection goes something like is:

  • Cycling is a form of physical activity
  • More physical activity means more calories burned
  • Burning calories helps regulate body weight, as measured by Body Mass Index (BMI)
  • A healthy BMI is associated with decreased disease risk (e.g. obesity, diabetes, cancer and stroke)

It’s not a bad argument, but it’s a complicated one. The problem is that we don’t need to perform mental gymnastics to illustrate the health benefits of cycling. Occam’s razor would suggest that there are simpler and more compelling ways to get to the point.

The truth is that cycling offers a whole lot more in the way of personal health benefits than preventing cardiovascular and metabolic disease (by way of BMI regulation by way of calorie-burning by way of cardiovascular exercise). Luckily for planners, there are benefits to cycling that are more direct and resonant than the points listed above. The problem is that planners aren’t talking about them.

An alternative story

Here is an example of a practical, uncontroversial and straightforward health benefit you won’t find in a bicycle master plan or regional health strategy:

Cycling develops strong legs.

Why is leg strength important? Improving leg strength has direct quality of life benefits. Everyday tasks, such as climbing stairs, getting out of bed, doing yardwork and unloading groceries are easier with stronger legs. Leg strength allows you to stay on your feet all day, dance until the bar closes, and sport a great butt, if those are things you are interested in doing.

There is value in all of these quality of life benefits, but for the purposes of this post, I want to highlight two preventative benefits: avoiding 1) Osteoporosis and 2) falls.

What do Osteoporosis and falls have in common? They primarily affect seniors. And worldwide, seniors are a larger demographic group than at any other time in human history—and growing.  For the next 15 years, roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day in the United States.[1] If current rates of Osteoporosis and falls among seniors hold steady, both afflictions will become more prevalent in our society as the population of older people grows.

Cycling is one way to counter this trend. Let’s briefly discuss Osteoporosis and falls and consider the role cycling can play in prevention.

Osteoporosis

All individuals experience age-related changes in bone mass and elasticity. But women, in particular, are at risk; post-menopausal women can lose 1 to 2 percent of their bone mass each year.[2] Luckily, bone health is more manageable than was previously understood. Basically, bone—like muscle and brain power—is governed by the principle of “use it or lose it.” And how do you “use” your bones? By stressing the skeleton with load-bearing exercise (otherwise known as strength training). “Using” your bones encourages bone formation and minimizes bone absorption, slowing or halting the net loss of bone matter that inevitably occurs with age.[3]

The key insight that planners have been missing is that cycling qualifies as load-bearing strength training, just as it qualifies as cardiovascular exercise. Cycling spans a spectrum of physical activity, with slow, steady-state cardio on one end (imagine a leisurely bike ride through a park) and anaerobic (strength) training on the other. The anaerobic side of cycling closely resembles load-bearing strength movements (like squats or rock climbing). This means that cycling is potentially a good substitute for strength training in older adults.

Generally speaking, cycling is more anaerobic the harder you are working. Carrying extra weight on your bicycle (either on your back or through cargo aids like panniers), traveling uphill, stopping and starting, or simply pedaling hard will all engage the body’s anaerobic system. In other words, if you ride a bicycle frequently you will probably engage in anaerobic (strength) training whether you want to or not. And it is precisely this type of training that prevents Osteoporosis.[4]

Falls

Falls are the leading cause of injuries among seniors, affecting one in three each year.[5] Yet for many years, the causes of falls were somewhat mysterious. Early studies, such as Blake et al. (1988), suggested (somewhat circularly) that “tripping” was the cause of the majority of falls among the elderly in the home.[6] In recent years, researchers have begun to deconstruct the “tripping” narrative, finding that falls occur even when there are no obstructions to trip over and when neither vision nor cognitive ability are impaired. In other words, falls among seniors can seemingly happen out of nowhere.

These observations have led researchers to identify leg strength as the key factor in fall prevention. The CDC now recommends that seniors engage in lower-body strength training (such as Tai Chi) as the number one measure to reduce the risk of falling.[7] I would argue that seniors can do better than Tai Chi, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that, if leg strength prevents falls among seniors, then cycling can and should play a key role in prevention.

Ride a bicycle. Get active strong.

Cycling involves a whole universe of health benefits that, for the most part, aren’t being talked about. This post has outlined just a couple. There is great potential for cycling to aid in the prevention of Osteoporosis and falls – simply because cycling develops leg strength.

There are many other promising avenues, of course. Sticking with the theme of aging, the mental health benefits of cycling could include reducing social isolation—a problem that is bound to worsen as the population of seniors grows.

The key is for planners to start articulating the health benefits that are tied most intimately to cycling. Leg strength might seem like an obvious result of riding a bicycle, yet it can mean a life-altering difference between falling and not falling; between breaking bones and not breaking bones; and between using a walker or moving independently.

Yes, we need researchers to perform longitudinal studies linking cycling (for example) with bone health. But we don’t need to wait for these studies. Instead we need to start acknowledging seemingly obvious details (like cycling develops strong legs), because these details can often be compelling.

The CDC does not currently recommend cycling as a preventative measure for Osteoporosis and falls—but it should. And planners can play a role in kick-starting the conversation.

 

 

[1] Pew Research Center, 2010. Baby Boomers Retire.

[2] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2013. Why strength training?

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2013. Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview.

[6] Blake et. al, 1988. Falls by elderly people at home: prevalence and associated factors. Journal of Age and Aging, 17.6.

[7] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2013. Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview.

 

Mark Seinen

About Mark Seinen

Mark has worked for five years in active transportation planning across the United States and Canada. His past work includes project management, policy analysis, street design, and mapping. Mark's professional skills are bolstered by practical experience on the front lines of urban cycling, including work as a bike courier.
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