Cycling has been shown to be very beneficial for improving health and fitness. There are hundreds of studies linking regular cycling to the reduction in body fat and lowering of the ‘risk of a number of serious illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.’
In addition, cycling improves cardio-respiratory function and has also been shown to boost mood which in turn can improve the ‘symptoms of some mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.’
The health benefits associated with cycling are so good in fact that one leading publication called the activity a ‘miracle pill’ and suggested that if more people transitioned to pedal power it could ‘save the NHS.’
An impressive list by anyone’s standards. And that’s just a brief introductory outline. Believe it or not but cycling offers many more benefits. In this article we will take a look at the 5 most important health and fitness benefits that cycling can confer. Also, this article considers training volume and it shows you how to develop a training programme while also sharing ideas of how you can incorporate more cycling into your life.
But first, here’s a list of the many health and fitness benefits associated with regular cycling
Increased cardiovascular fitness
Increased muscle strength and flexibility
Improved joint mobility
Decreased stress levels
Improved posture and coordination
Decreased body fat levels
Reduced susceptibility or management of disease
Could slow the aging process
Can improve balance and posture
Will cycling tone my legs?
If you do it enough yes cycling will indeed improve the muscular tonality of your legs. But not just your legs! Because cycling is a quintessential cardiovascular exercise that activates the largest muscle groups – the legs and cardio-respiratory system – it will decrease overall fat percentage thus improving body composition. Basically, cycling improves whole-body definition.
Which muscles does cycling use?
The primary muscles used when cycling include:
Gluteus Maximus and Minimus (bum)
Biceps Femoris (hamstring)
Vastus Medialis (quadriceps)
Rectus Femoris (quadriceps)
Vastus Lateralis (quadriceps)
Gastrocnemius Medialis (calves)
Gastrocnemius Lateralis (calves)
In short, every muscle from the waist down!
But cycling also activates our core stabilising muscles – which accounts for why professional cycling teams have incorporated core stability exercises into their training regime.
Will cycling help me lose weight?
Read on and your question will be answered . . .
5 benefits of cycling
1: Cycling burns fat and consumes calories
One of the highest calorie expenditures recorded in a sporting competition was during the Tour de France. On average cyclists consumed a colossal 8,000 calories across 7-hours of racing.
However, this is only half the calories burnt by a RAAM (Race Across America) rider. In 2003 one competitor recorded a daily calorie expenditure of 17,965! To put that into perspective, over a week an average size male will consume 17,500 calories.
But these are not your average cyclists. Tour de France riders are arguably the fittest athletes on earth. And though most are non-professional athletes (just unhinged enthusiasts), RAAM riders still must possess insane physical endurance: the race sees them cover 3000-miles across America in a mere 7-days.
So what about your average pedal pusher?
Of course, because of the inordinate number of variables that affect calorie expenditure (intensity, terrane, temperature, physiology, etc., etc. ad infinitum), it’s impossible to provide an accurate calorie expenditure estimation for the average cyclist. However, cycling at a steady pace – that is, an intensity that wouldn’t impede you from conducting a conversation – consumes somewhere around 300 calories per hour.
Granted, that’s not particularly ground-breaking. But it’s only cycling at a steady pace, remember. If you were to turn the intensity up that expenditure could easily double. Also, if you can somehow habituate cycling, say cycle to work instead of drive, then you could burn thousands of additional calories each week.
2: Cycling improves cardiovascular performance
Cycling is a cardiovascular exercise par excellence. Perhaps the single most important attribute of a grand tour cyclist is the relative performance of their cardiovascular system – that is, how much blood their heart pumps out with each successive beat (stroke volume) and the efficiency of their vascular system (delivering oxygenated blood to the working muscles and deoxygenated blood back to the heart).
Hence why, in cycling parlance, an athlete who can turn-over a consistent cadence for hours on end is said to have a ‘good engine’.
The reason why cycling is so good at developing cardiovascular performance is because the exercise is powered by the largest muscle group of the body. A prevailing misunderstanding is that cycling is all about quadriceps strength. But this is only part of the picture. To turn those pedals the gluteus maximums (the largest skeletal muscle) and minimums, the quadriceps, hamstrings and gastrocnemius (calves) – and whole host of other muscles too insignificant to name – are ‘recruited’.
That army of muscle is fuelled ceaselessly by the strongest muscle of them all: the heart. During a cycle the heart beats harder and faster so that working muscles are kept stoked with a continuous supply of oxygenated blood. It is this additional physical demand that promotes the growth of new muscle tissue thus strengthening the cardiac wall and the smooth muscles that line the vascular system.
3: Cycling can help lower disease risk
In 2009 an Australian research team published a paper showing the positive effects exercise exerts in the fight against cancer. The research demonstrated that exercise, in conjunction with established treatment methods, can positively support cancer patients irrespective of what stage they are at in their treatment.
This is one of multitude of studies that link regular exercise to decrease susceptibility to illness and disease. A recent publication reported that of 140 studies (into the health benefits of exercise) over 75% showed ‘statistically significant and clinically relevant’ results regarding the associative links between regular exercise and decreased disease and all-cause mortality.'
"If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented."
To enjoy the health benefits of exercise we need only participate in a mere 30 to 45-minutes of sustained aerobic activity three times a week (NHS). And to satisfy that minimum requirement is far easier than you think. For example, if instead of driving to work you cycled, you could get your 30-minutes of exercise in with little to no disturbance to your daily habits.
Also, if you choose to commute by bike as opposed to car, you stand to net a whole host of additional benefits besides those of decrease disease risk. When I traded in four wheels for two, I noticed I saved lots of money (I worked it out to about £1000 a year). Furthermore, I enjoyed traffic-free commuting which significantly reduced stress levels. And, last but by no means least, I have significantly shrunk the size of my carbon footprint.
4. Cycling can improve mental wellbeing
The link between exercise and improved mental wellbeing is adamantine. Statistically speaking, people who engage in regular exercise suffer less stress, enjoy reduced incidences of depression and anxiety.
According to Curtis, author of Healthy Psychology, ‘in the areas of depression, people who exercise regularly are generally less depressed than sedentary people are.’ The way exercise achieves this is twofold. Firstly by ‘stimulating the production of brain chemicals called endorphins’ exercise lifts mood and promotes a sense of wellbeing. Secondly, because it requires high focus exercise turns attention outward – away from the constant negative and harmful introspection that characterise depression, (Griffen and Tyrell 2003 – p165).
Cycling could in fact offer more positives beyond the purported beneficial effects exercise exerts on mental health. Because cycling requires a high degree of focus and concentration it can induce the coveted ‘flow’ state which has become synonymous with happiness and wellbeing.
Flow, popularised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a hyper focused state where we become immersed in the activity. Of this state Csikszentmihalyi said 'There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.'
Those fortunate to have experienced flow can attest to the timeless sense of focus it induces. But also the lasting reverberations of connection, fulfilment and purpose that continue to resonate within once we emerge from flow.
In addition, cycling (certainly above gym-based forms of physical exercise), because it takes place in the ‘great outdoors’, helps to reduce stress and bring about a sense of wellbeing. This is one of the most common reported benefits amongst cyclists. And though the reports are mostly anecdotal, anyone who has ever had the pleasure of cycling through the countryside on a sunny day will readily support the calming effects it brings about.
5. Cycling could increase your life span
The science is quite clear on the matter – to wit those who regularly exercise stand a statistically greater chance of living longer, by as much as 12 years. But what’s more, as well as potentially extending your lifespan, exercise can improve the quality of those additional years because it also decreases disease susceptibility while improving energy levels and general mobility.
And as previously discussed, to vie for the above health benefits does not require a radical increase in the volume of exercise. Studies have shown that 150-minutes – 3 to 4 weekly sessions lasting between 30- to 45-minutes – is enough.
(Of course, the benefits exercise confers is compounded if we adopt healthy lifestyle practices; such as transitioning to a plant based diet and reducing saturated fat, processed food, sugar and abstaining from alcohol and cigarette consumption.)
Besides the attributes already identified, another benefit of cycling is that it is gentle on the joints. Unlike running, which is a high impact exercise, cycling is comparatively low impact. This explains why cycling is used in sports injury centres to aid post-injury rehabilitation.
It is these qualities that make cycling an excellent choice of exercise activity to participate in to promote health and wellbeing. For not only does it stimulate the largest muscle group of the body, including the cardiovascular system, cycling is not as strenuous on the body thus making it more accessible to wider range of physical abilities and age groups.
How often should we cycle to get the health benefits?
If cycling is your sole form of physical exercise, then you’ll need to ride for around 150-minutes a week to achieve the NHS’s minimum suggested ‘dose’. To an untrained individual 150-minutes may sound like a lot. However, when spread across a week, it only equates to 3 to 4 sessions of 30- to 45-minutes in duration. This recommended exercise dosage can easily be achieved if you establish a training routine or, if possible, cycle to work a couple of times a week.
According to the British Cycling organisation ‘If you aim to cycle consistently twice during the week (either on road or spinning), and do a longer ride at the weekend you will soon achieve great cardiovascular fitness.’ Granted, that advice is a little ambiguous. But if you’re seeking a bit of training structure the advice posited by British Cycling will provide you with a rudimentary framework. Initially aim for two 30- to 45-minute rides in the week, perhaps Tuesday and Thursday, and on Saturday or Sunday enjoy a nice long steady 2-hour Odyssey through the countryside.
Cycling training programme
Below I have created a simple weekly cycling training programme. The programme suggests session frequency and duration for the beginner, intermediate and advanced trainer.
Of course, cycling, even though it is low impact, should not comprise your soul exercise modality. Habitually performing the same exercise week in week out will likely lead to overuse injury. Thus, cycling is best included as part of an inclusive exercise regime that encompasses multiple modalities: cardiovascular, strength, muscular endurance, flexibility (and other forms of self-rehabilitation exercise) and sport.
(Please note: the guide is supposed only to represent a generic outline of how a running regime could be structured.)
Now that you received a lengthy lecture on the health and fitness benefits of cycling, including a comprehensive overview of how to develop a training programme, you might be eager to get out on your bike. Bravo to you!
But before you do it’s important to ensure that you have the proper attire and, more importantly, that you have and use the correct safety equipment. All too often I see cyclists in dark clothing, with no lights on their bikes and, most crazy of all, without a helmet on their head! This reckless disregard for personal wellbeing only puts the cyclist at risk.
Make sure that you are not one of these lunatics. Every time you go out cycling ensure to:
Wear high visibility clothing – illuminous yellow/orange with reflective strips
Have two back lights and one front – at a minimum!
Carry a water bottle and nutrition (especially on long rides)
Have a pump and multitool – plus spare innertube and/or puncture repair kit
Wear a helmet – and make sure it’s a good one
If you don’t have all of the advisory kit outlined above the product list below will provide you with a review of some the best cycling kit currently available. Remember, when it comes to cycling on the road you must think safety – safety – and more safety!
Cycling Jersey Set
BXIO Men’s Cycling Jerseys & Bib Shorts (£39.66)
This matching bib and jersey set was selected for two reasons. The first: it has received lots of excellent customer feedback: it has received over 450 4-star reviews. Secondly, it is as garish as it gets. When it comes to cycling clothing visibility trumps all other attributes – even comfort.
WOSAWE Softshell Cycling Jacket (£31.99)
This WOSAWE cycling jacket is perfect for inclement weather. But because it's softshell it can be worn on milder days without causing you to overheat. The front is windproof and waterproof, the back is breathable. It’s lined with a thin layer of fleece which offers extra protection. For the price this is an excellent starter jacket as if will keep you comfortable and dry while also making you visible to motorists.
Nearly 5 stars with over 250 reviews
Optimum Nitebrite Hi-Viz Cycling Socks (£7.99)
Socks should also be high visibility. These ‘nitebrite’ by Optimum certainly tick that box. In addition to being bright, they have received a ton of customer feedback complimenting their comfort and quality. The Optimum nitebrite socks have been anatomically designed specifically for cycling to offer support and reduce sores. They are made from a moisture wicking material which will keep your feet fresh and dry during long rides.
Apace GuardG3X USB Rechargeable Bike Tail Light (£15.99)
This has got to be one of the most popular bike tail lights on the market at the moment. It has received a whopping 4000 reviews and still retains 4.5 stars. The reason why it has made such a splash is because, well, it is super bright. In addition, it is fitted with a rechargeable battery, which can be charged from a laptop or through a USB, and it boasts a twelve hour battery life – even longer if you select a lower brightness setting. Other attributes of Apace’s bike light includes:
Super bright LED with 6 settings
Superior battery life: 2 hours of charging gives you 12 hours of safety and fun!
120 Degree Visibility
Wide beam pattern: ensures you’re seen from farther away, while 120 degree visibility ensures you don’t blind an oncoming motorist or cyclist and cause an accident.
Cycleafer® Bike Lights Set (£16.99)
Or, instead of buying your lights separately, you can opt for a set. Cycleafer’s front and tail light set has revived over 5500 reviews and still retains nearly 5 stars, making this the most popular light set available. This product has been rated highly on account of the luminosity of the lights and durability and multi-functionality of the design. Furthermore, as well as being super lightweight and waterproof, these lights have built-in rechargeable batteries, which boast superior life. In addition, they come with a 3-year warranty and excellent customer support.
Science in Sport (SIS) Clear Drinks Bottle, 800 ml £3.99)
SIS’s transparent water bottle is the product of choice among cyclists and exercise enthusiasts. With over 13,000 reviews it still sports 4.5 stars. Why so popular? Well, not only is it the ‘most widely used [water bottle] in the pro peloton at the Tour de France with Blanco Giant Nissan Trek, Katusha and Astana being amongst those teams using it’ but, as one happy customer said, it holds water so I can drink when I’m thirsty! What more can you ask from a water bottle?
Crank Brothers Multi-19 Tool Bike Tools & Maintenance (£43.00)
This is an insanely popular multitool. Over 6500 customers have rated this product and it still retains 4.5 stars. As well as being constructed from industrial grade, high tensile steel it features 19 separate tools making it compatible for all bikes. In addition, it is compact and lightweight so won’t weigh you down. The tools have been machined to the highest specification. This reduces slippage and/or poor connection and ensures longer wear and tear.
The benefits of cycling abound. This article should have provided you with a glimpse into the multifaceted way in which regular cycling can improve your health and fitness. To gain a deeper appreciation of this super simple form of exercise, and best approach methods, consider the reading list below.
From this article, if it’s done it job, you should leave with the motivation to want to cycle and also the knowledge of how to include cycling into your exercise regime. Now it’s over to get on your bike and get out on the open road.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Curtis. A. (2000) Healthy Psychology. Routaledge. USA.
Griffen. J. Tyrrell. I (2003) Human Givens. HG Publishing. UK.