If you’ve been thinking about unearthing that bicycle tucked in the back of your garage gathering cobwebs, or if you’ve been eying your neighbors with envy as they breezily cycle past you when you’re out walking, then here’s some news for you: Cycling — whether you do it in the great outdoors or on a stationary bike in your basement — has a whole lot of benefits for your body and mind.
We talked with Namrita Brooke, PhD, RDN, a USA Cycling Level 2 coach with degrees in applied exercise physiology and sports nutrition, to find out all the ways it can build strength, improve your balance and more.
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Benefits of cycling
“Cycling is not as much of a total body workout as, say, running is,” says Brooke. “But when you compare it to something like walking, since you can adjust the bike’s gearing to give you more resistance, you can actually create more force through your muscles.”
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If you adjust the gears so that your legs are moving more slowly and pushing harder, she says, “that would be more of a muscular strength workout than if you adjust the gear so your legs are just spinning.” It doesn’t build muscular strength as much as strength training in the gym, she adds, “but every part of the pedal stroke will hit a different muscle group in the lower body. The force primarily starts from the waist and the hips, and then to your quads and hamstrings, and your calves to some degree as well.” Research published in 2015 in the journal Acta Physiologica underlines this: It found that cycling can build lower-body muscle strength and quality, especially in older adults.
In terms of core strength, Brooke says that again, cycling is not as much of an active exercise as running, “because you don’t have the upper body rotation. Your core is pretty still — but you do need to engage your core to hold your upper body in a position so you’re not gripping too tight, or getting neck pain or pain behind your shoulders. So there is an element of core work.”
It’s true that once you’ve learned how to balance yourself on a bike, your body remembers that via muscle memory. And riding a bike helps your balance in other areas of your life, too. “Any activity where you’re using a sense of proprioception — feeling where your body is in space and reacting to that — will help improve balance,” says Brooke. “When you’re riding outside, you’re engaging a lot of the supporting smaller muscles that help you to balance. And then when you have the variable terrain of a gravel path, or an up or down incline, or you’re making a turn, your body has to react and maintain your position on the bike so you don’t fall over.” Research in older adults has found that cycling improves balance in specific ways that some other exercises don’t.
If you have an issue with balance, keep in mind that the slower you go, the harder it is to balance. “With a little bit of speed, your bike is actually going to want to stay upright and go in a straight line,” says Brooke. And for people who are balance-challenged, Brooke suggests using a bike with wider tires. “A hybrid with a wider mountain bike tire, say, will have a bit more grip and be a little more forgiving than a standard road tire.” This is also a good idea for those who haven’t ridden a bike since they were a child, she adds: “They may have lost some muscle strength in some of those finer balancing muscles, and they might get dizzy.”
“Your heart is a muscle,” says Brooke. “So when you bike, you’re giving it a good workout that’s also going to increase your circulatory volume — which then delivers more oxygen and nutrients throughout your circulatory system. From the heart through the blood vessels to the tissue, you’re delivering good stuff and taking away the bad stuff.” Also, as your heart rate increases and pumps more blood, “that helps with arteriolosclerosis and cholesterol management, and all the bad things that happen in your body metabolically from being inactive.”
Research backs this up: A Danish study that followed over 52,000 men and women, ages 50+, for 20 years found a 11-18% lower risk of coronary heart disease among those who biked — and a benefit was seen even in those who were leisurely cyclers.
High impact is not necessarily bad, says Brooke — but low-impact exercise is more ideal for those with muscle imbalances, knee issues, foot problems, a history of injury or previous surgeries. “A lot of people are recovering from an injury that doesn’t allow them to walk or jog,” she says. “In that case, physical therapists and doctors may put them on a bike for rehab and to get the cardiovascular benefits and all the other benefits of endurance exercise.”
Something to keep in mind, though: “If you’re not doing any sort of weight-bearing activity, like jogging or running, it would absolutely be important to do some sort of resistance training in the gym under the guidance of an athletic trainer or physical therapist,” says Brooke. “Because that’s the one downside of cycling: You’re not really stimulating any sort of the bone regeneration that you get with weight-bearing or resistance exercise. So you do need to include that.”
First: Remember that healthy comes in many sizes, and there are loads of healthy reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with shedding pounds. But if you’re hoping to lose weight, cycling does have some advantages. “The benefit of it being a low impact activity is that you can exercise for longer and go farther, compared to something like walking —which is a fantastic exercise too,” says Brooke. “If you want to increase your energy expenditure, or your calorie burn, and you’re finding that walking isn’t enough or you can’t run, then cycling can help because you can actually go for longer. If you start with 30 minutes and build to 45 minutes or even an hour, that’s a lot of good aerobic activity. And you’re able to burn more energy that way, with the length of time. And you can vary the terrain and the intensity, from high to low and back, so there are a lot of factors you can modulate on a bike to get different types of exercise. And the amount of calories you’re going to burn will be directly relational to the volume and intensity of how you’re riding.”
A study published in 2010 — a follow up to the large Nurses’ Health Study—found that women who were at a healthy weight and bicycled more than 4 hours a week had less chance of gaining more than 5% of their baseline body weight, compared to those who didn’t bike at all. For women who were overweight or obese, the study found they had a lower chance of gaining weight if they cycled two to three hours a week.
Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to start exercising specifically for weight loss, we invite you gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
Mood and energy
“I did my PhD work in this area! We measured the benefits of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling, in athletes and non-athletes, and there’s definitely a benefit when it comes to perceived energy. Meaning, people felt more energetic after moderate-intensity exercise,” Brooke says. “And they also had better attention afterward. These effects are attributed to what’s called exercise-induced arousal in the brain. It makes you more attuned. You’re using less brain resources to complete tasks, whether that’s at work or at home. This is compared to no exercise, when you’re in a resting state.”
And interestingly, she adds, you might not see the same boost after doing really difficult, fatiguing exercise. “Doing, say, a high-intensity interval workout might not have the same benefits, because if you’re a relatively unfit or untrained person, you might feel extra tired and really just wiped out—meaning more mental fatigue and less mental energy.”
A small 2019 study agrees: It found that those who cycled outdoors had both improved executive functioning and mental health. And another study that looked at a 12-week program of older adults in Australia found that they reported a better quality of life, including more social confidence, a boosted mood and a feeling of empowerment.
According to the CDC, there are serious health risks in our country caused by social isolation and loneliness. It’s associated with an increased risk of dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and more. All the more reason to take a ride through your neighborhood, or at a park or on a bike trail: It’s is a great way to meet up with people in your community, Brooke points out. “And there are cycling groups everything, for any level or any age,” she adds. You can boost social connections while also boosting your health!
A better commute
If you have the option to ride a bike to work — or even ride a bike to the train or bus that you take to work (assuming there’s a safe place to lock it up there!) — you may reap a load of health benefits, research shows. A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal found an association between commuting by bike and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer — in fact, with mortality in general. Another study done in Spain, published in the same journal, found that those who cycled to work had a self-reported lower risk of stress.
Other research emphasized the health benefits of a cycling commute as well: A 2016 observational study on active commuting in the UK, which included 82,000 women, found a lower body fat percentage among those who bicycled or biked-plus-walked to work.
How long should you cycle a day?
The answer to that depends on your fitness level, and what your goals are. One of the advantages of cycling is that it’s a low-impact form of exercise, as Brooke pointed out, so your body isn’t taking the kind of pounding that comes from, say, running. It’s also easy to tailor cycling to your stamina and abilities—to take it easy when needed, to alternate speed and intensity, to choose the number and incline of hills you’re going to tackle. Some days, you might feel like a long ride, and others a short sprint around the neighborhood. All are good options! And like any exercise, you’ll accrue more benefits the more you keep at it.
Who shouldn’t cycle?
Before you start cycling, it’s important to consult with your doctor and physical therapist if you’re under their care for any sort of serious health condition (such as heart disease) or injury (think: knee injury or surgery). This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to work cycling into your exercise routine—you just need to make sure that it’s safe for you, from a health perspective. In some cases—say, if you have a blood clotting disorder, where falling is a risk —your doctor may suggest that indoor cycling is a better option, says Brooke.
Is indoor or outdoor cycling better?
Both types of riding have upsides, says Brooke. “For one thing, riding indoors is really convenient,” she says. “When you don’t have a lot of time, or you don’t feel safe riding in the outside environment around you — if, say, you don’t have a bike path or a place for a smooth ride — then an indoor ride is going to get you all of those same benefits that you’d get from riding outside.” That said, she adds, riding outside does have specific pluses: “The benefits of cycling outside including gaining balance control, which involves using a lot more brain resources. It’s more mentally engaging, and you’re using more of your smaller balancing muscles and your proprioceptive aspects to stay upright. You have to be more engaged because there are other things happening right around you.”
And, Brooke adds, “There are also just benefits of being outside and exercising outside—people feel more relaxed and more positive, especially if they’re in nature. It might not be the same if you’re riding on a busy road, but think about gliding along a nice bike path, surrounded by trees and flowers.” Nice surroundings, fresh air: There’s a reason why nature has been called Vitamin N!
All in all, Brooke adds, the best place for you to bike depends on your environment and the equipment you have available. “The bottom line is, wherever you can get it done, that’s great!”
Most important: Please wear a helmet. It’ll lower your risk of a brain injury substantially, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And that’s a very smart way to protect your health, for now and in the future. Keep that noggin safe!
Other safety points to keep in mind: You want to make sure that you’re very visible to drivers, which means wearing fluorescent colors during the day, and reflective colors at night (especially on your lower body, so that drivers can notice the motion of your legs which helps their brains perceive your presence). According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), you should also have a white light on the front of your bike, and a red light at rear. And then, says the NHTSA, follow basic road-safety rules: Drive with the direction of traffic; obey street signs and lights, as you would when you’re driving a car; avoid distractions, like listening to music or texting (really—just don’t!); and keep your eyes out for all sorts of hazards, whether that’s a pedestrian glued to his phone, a car door opening in your path, or a pothole in the road. Stay safe out there, and enjoy!
Lisa (she/her) is the executive director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, a team that produces health and wellness content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. Formerly the executive editor of Women’s Health, The Good Life and Parenting magazines and a senior editor at Esquire and Glamour, she specializes in producing investigative health reports and other stories that help people live their healthiest possible lives. She has won many editing awards, including the National Magazine Award.
Nutrition Lab Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.