Do you want to know how to keep fit, lose weight, build muscle and enjoy the fresh air? The solution is – literally – as easy as riding a bike. My regular Instagram followers will know that earlier this summer I started bike rides with my father, and I am now a complete convert! I may even participate in this month’s Women’s Festival of Cycling. And I’m currently researching which bike to buy myself when funds allow. At the moment, I’m borrowing my sister’s, but I’m seriously thinking of investing in a mountain bike of my own some day.
I must admit I often used to hire a bike on holiday. I have especially fond memories of haring around the surroundings at Norfolk’s Holkham Hall – such good fun! But I’m enjoying whizzing up and down the local hills so much I think I can finally justify taking the plunge and buying my own set of (two) wheels. In fact, there are so many benefits of cycling I’m not sure how to fit them all into just one blog. But whether you want to cycle for pleasure or practicality, there’s certainly no shortage of reasons to embrace pedal power.
Cycling for physical fitness
One of the key benefits of cycling is, of course, the cardiovascular fitness it enhances. And that’s a big plus for women, who often don’t prioritise heart health the way they should. According to Dr Deborah Lee, of the Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, heart disease kills twice as many women every year when compared to breast cancer. She explains: “77 women die every day from a heart attack, caused by atherosclerosis. This happens when fatty deposits accumulate in the walls of your arteries, narrowing the lumen of these vessels, and restricting the blood supply…Any form of physical exercise, which includes cycling, will help prevent the development of atherosclerosis.”
In addition to boosting cardiovascular fitness, other benefits of cycling including the management of certain medical conditions too. For example, regular cycling can help to prevent/control strokes, high blood pressure and even Type 2 diabetes. It also boosts muscle stress, strengthens bones and improves joint mobility.
Benefits of cycling for weight loss
Weight management is yet another of the many key benefits of cycling. And you don’t have to cycle hard, for hours on end, to see the pounds drop off. “Depending on how fast you cycle, just cycling at an average speed burns up to 300 calories an hour,” notes Dr Lee. Regular bike rides will increase your metabolism. And the muscle they build will allow you to burn more calories, even while resting.
Why is this important? Well, I’ve definitely found it harder to stay slim and trim as I’ve got older – and I know I’m not alone. According to the NHS, 62% of women in the UK are overweight or obese. The most common age group for being overweight or obese in women is 45-54. This isn’t about fat shaming. Excess pounds aren’t simply an aesthetic issue; they can have serious health consequences too.
“Obesity is a major risk factor for many of the chronic diseases we see today – heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and dementia,” agrees Dr Lee. “It’s also a major contributory factor in the development of osteoarthritis.” Cycling is an effective low-impact exercise option, so it’s ideal if you are a little larger than you’d like to be when you begin. “When you’re cycling, your knees aren’t taking your weight,” explains Dr Lee. “So it’s an easier form of exercise for anyone with [hip or knee issues], or who are carrying extra pounds.”
Cycling for mental health
A healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body. The relentless worry, stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously impacted the quality of mental health all over the world. Cycling is an easy and accessible way to improve it.
One of the really important benefits of cycling is simply that it’s fun! While you’re pedalling away, the body releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Sometimes known as “happy hormones” these endorphins can reduce pain and boost pleasure, resulting in a real feeling of wellbeing. When you cycle outside, you’re also exposed to sunlight and fresh air, which should also elevate your mood. Then there’s the sense of achievement that cycling up a hill can bring. If your mental health is suffering due to lack of sleep (or even vice-versa), a brisk cycle ride can tire you out – in a good way – and help you to sleep better, and wake refreshed.
Cycling to be sociable
The multiple lockdowns of the past 18 months have forced most of us to spend more time alone than we’d have liked. With plenty of evidence to suggest that loneliness rivals obesity and even smoking as a serious health risk, now is a sensible time to get sociable again. One of the great benefits of cycling is that it can be done with friends and family, of all ages and stages. A group cycling outing is a brilliant way to explore your local surroundings. Pack a picnic, and you’ve got the perfect low-cost, easy-to-organise day out. As restrictions continue to ease, you could even consider a specialist cycling holiday. There are lots of options available, for all ages and fitness levels.
Cycling to protect the environment
The benefits of cycling aren’t just personal. They’re environmentally friendly too. So if you’re trying hard to live a more sustainable lifestyle, it’s definitely time to get on your bike. Cycling is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. If you’re set to return to in-person work, but would prefer to avoid public transport, (distance permitting) could you cycle your commute instead? Merlin Cycles has created a fascinating infographic to highlight what would happen if you swapped your car for a bike for 12 months. Spoiler alert: you’d be fitter, healthier and wealthier!
How to get started
Taking up a new hobby or beginning a new form of exercise can be intimidating. As with so many things in life, the first step is often the hardest. “To any women wondering whether to start cycling, my advice would be to simply grab your bike and helmet and start riding,” notes Alice Williams, a Personal Trainer from the OriGym Centre of Excellence. “However, if you don’t want to head out on your own just yet, joining a cycling group – or riding with a friend – is a great option. There are even plenty of women-only cycle clubs out there. If you’re struggling with motivation, riding with others gives you a sense of accountability and some structure to your cycling routine.”
If you’re cycling for fitness, Alice recommends complementing your rides with some strength training sessions too. “Lower body exercises such as squats, deadlifts and lunges – as well as core work – will help you build strength, which will subsequently improve your cycling performance too.”
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer in terms of how often or how far you should ride in order to maximise the many benefits of cycling. But if your goal is to improve your general fitness, Alice recommends cycling two-three times a week. “Doing short but regular rides is generally better than longer rides less often,” she points out. “But whatever schedule you choose, you should always allow plenty of rest time. This is essential for muscle recovery, which will reduce the risk of injury.”
Keen to explore other forms of al fresco exercise? Click here to discover the many benefits of walking, one of my favourite pastimes!