The health benefits of cycling read like the promotional blurb for the ultimate wonder drug. Here’s just one little nugget that reveals the power of pedalling: research has shown that cycling to work can cut the risk of heart disease by 46 per cent.
And it’s not just heart health, from bone strength, to fat stores, to better posture, cycling can help transform your body. Here’s how it does it.
Stronger, not skinnier
If you start cycling regularly, in time you will see your body shape change and become more toned. However, much more important than any results you see on the weighing scales or inches you lose round your waistline, is the fact that your body will start becoming stronger, with fat being replaced by muscle.
In terms of long-term health this is great news. Regardless of your overall weight, having a large amount of belly fat increases your risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, sleep apnoea and premature death from any cause. Cycling can help reduce all these risks as well as providing specific benefits, such as improved lung and heart function and decreased overall body fat.
Cycling also strengthens bones, increases muscle form and improves flexibility. Experienced cyclists recognise the importance of core body strength and this, combined with fat loss around the middle, provides something of a double whammy: not only will you be more toned but a strengthened core and better posture will see you carrying yourself better, too. So the effects in terms of appearance will have twice as much impact.
Lose weight but not motivation
One important thing to recognise is that it’s actually trickier than you might realise to start a new exercise regime and lose weight at the same time. If you’re coming to cycling from a fairly sedentary start, the increased exercise will burn more calories than you’re used to and your body will therefore want you to eat more. It’s the same situation for regular cyclists who increase their mileage or intensity.
In addition to this, you may consciously feel it’s fine to reward yourself with food for the extra effort you have put in. The problem is, it’s very hard to balance the amount of reward you deserve with the amount of extra energy you have spent.
Nutritionally, the most sensible thing to do when you start or increase an exercise regime is not change your diet straightaway. Grow used to the increased physical activity you are doing first — don’t try eating less and don’t succumb to the idea of ‘rewards’. Then rather than changing the amount you eat, week by week take small steps in terms of what you eat — substitute healthier options for your previous favourites — and think about when you eat — generally, the further away from bedtime you eat the better and specifically, eat protein after exercise to repair muscles.
Only once exercise is a stable part of your daily life should you start thinking about cutting back on what you eat. Otherwise there is the risk you are trying to enforce too big a lifestyle change, too quickly, and you may end up giving in and achieving nothing.
Take it easy
Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and while you may want to see the benefits of exercise as soon as possible, don’t fret about it. You’re getting some exercise, you’re thinking about your food intake, you’re doing all the right things and obvious results will come. In the meantime, you’re doing your overall long-term health untold good.
Making cycling a regular, enjoyable part of your life is the most important factor. As with dieting, pushing yourself too hard, too soon could put that in danger, especially through injury. If your cycling regime involves leisure rides or commutes, it’s pretty safe to do that every day — just listen to your body for fatigue or any niggles and have a break or get them looked at before they get serious. However, if your cycling regime involves longer, harder rides at fairly high intensity, allow a day in between sessions for your muscles to repair and recover.
Finally, take it from us, you really don’t need to become a fully-fledged Lycra wearer or cycle club member to see the health benefits of cycling. Regular riding of any kind, especially commuting, can produce just as many positive results without requiring a massive change of lifestyle. So what are you waiting for, get cycling and find out how your own fitness can become so much Better by bike.