Spring has sprung! With the long-awaited warmer weather finally here, we’re looking for excuses to spend more time outside. Given that May is Bike Month and May 13 – 17 is Bike to Work Week, consider taking your workout to the outdoors by switching your usual exercise for a ride on a bike. It’s not just exercise, it’s fun!
Types of Biking for Exercise
Between the different types of bicycles and styles of riding, it’s tough to narrow down a single option. Sometimes we like a combination of more than one style.
Road Biking, also commonly referred to as road cycling, is generally done on pavement or other smooth surfaces. The most common type of cycling, it can be done for leisure, exercise, sport (racing), or for commuting.
Road biking can be a great exercise, as biking at 16 to 19 miles/hour can burn about 892 calories per hour for individuals weighing 155 pounds.
Off-Road Biking is generally done on rougher surfaces. Biking on rough, rocky trails is better known as mountain biking. This type of biking requires a specific bicycle depending on the surface – usually an off-road, hybrid, or mountain bikes.
This type of biking can burn about 632 calories per hour for individuals weighing 155 pounds.
Comfort Bicycles are variations of mountain bikes that are intended for leisurely, recreational riding and are, as the name indicates, more comfortable. They are meant to be used on paved roads and flat terrain for short rides.
Cruisers are popular bikes for leisurely riding, especially at the beach. They have wide tires and seats, one gear, and are best on flat terrain. The handlebars are upright to allow for good viewing while riding.
Comfort biking and cruising burn fewer calories than other types of biking, as they are usually done at a more leisurely pace. Biking at 12 to 13.9 miles/hour can burn about 596 calories for individuals weighing 155 pounds.
Stationary bicycles are indoor, fixed bicycles used for exercise. After all, who says biking needs to be limited to the outdoors? Exercise biking is not limited by weather as stationary bikes can be found in most gyms, with the added benefit of special “spin” classes designed to maximize your workout; they can also be purchased for home use. Heavier individuals or those with hip problems should consider using a stationary recumbent bike, as the reclined position will allow for better weight distribution across the back and buttocks.
Stationary biking is a great form of exercise, as moderate stationary biking can burn about 520 calories per hour for individuals weighing 155 pounds. At a more vigorous rate, the same individuals can burn about 782 calories.
Biking Calories Burned
You can burn anywhere from a few to a lot of calories when you bike, depending on your body composition, the intensity of the cycling, and the time.
Your body plays a role in how many calories you burn when you exercise. People who are larger or have more muscle burn more calories, even when not active. For example, an individual who weighs 240 pounds will burn around 436 calories cycling at a leisurely rate for one hour. By comparison, individuals who weigh 200 pounds and 160 pounds will burn about 364 and 292 calories respectively at the same rate and over the same amount of time.
The greater the intensity of your biking, the more calories you burn as well. Compared to a leisurely ride, one that has a lot of climbs will give you a better workout than a flat ride. An indoor cycling or “spin” class that simulates a high-intensity outside ride can allow you to burn up to 712 calories in an hour.
Of course the longer you ride the more calories you’ll burn. But for some of us, a long bike ride doesn’t fit into our schedules. In this instance, divide your bike workout into 4 shorter rides so that you can get your workout in where you can.
Interval training is also a great option and one that can maximize calorie burn according to studies. By following short bursts of intense activity with more moderate activity, the amount of fat burned in an hour of continuous moderate cycling can increase by 36% compared to a consistent pace throughout the hour. Beginners should start with five-minute bursts spread throughout the workout.
Health Benefits of Biking
As an aerobic activity, biking has a number of health benefits that may be seen with just a few hours of cycling a week.
Cardiovascular Health is improved in bikers. Biking has been associated with a decreased risk of coronary heart disease. It stimulates and improves heart and lung function, improves circulation, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels.
Muscles and Joints are also supported by biking. Muscles are developed and toned, particularly in the calves, thighs, and buttocks. Biking is also low-impact, making it a good exercise option for people with joint conditions or leg and hip injuries. It’s also less likely to cause strain and injuries compared to other types of aerobic exercise. In addition, it is more effective than walking for raising heart rate.
Weight Loss is often a result of biking, as you can burn a lot of calories when riding at a vigorous rate. It also promotes post-workout calorie burn, as it ramps up metabolism after ride is over.
Lifespan Increase has been linked to bikers, even when adjusted for injury risk, especially when compared to people who commute by car.
Improved Coordination is supported by biking, as it’s an activity that requires moving both feet in circles while steering with both hands and balancing body weight. It also helps with posture and balance.
Improved Mental Health has been linked to biking, even when done at mild intensity. Like many other forms of exercise, it may also help with depression and anxiety and bring a new form of enjoyment into the daily routine.
Reduction in Type 2 Diabetes due to increased physical activity. Studies have shown that people who cycle for more than 30 minutes daily reduced their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 40%.
The best eating plan for biking is no different than the best eating plan for every day. Diets should be low in saturated fat and include healthy unsaturated fats, high-quality sources of lean-protein, a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables as the largest part, and also include whole grains.
When biking for extended periods of time – 45 minutes or longer – you should add more carbohydrates, but these should come from complex carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Unsaturated fats such as nut or seed butters and avocados can also be helpful.
If going on a longer ride, pack a lunch to keep yourself from burning out. Researchers recommend increasing your carbohydrates by 20-40 grams for every half hour you ride beyond an hour. Turkey on pita with lettuce, tomato, and avocado, can be a good choice, as well as carrots and hummus.
Also consider packing a meal replacement drink, an apple, a banana, some grapes, trail mix, or even a high-quality granola or energy bar that is minimally processed without too many simple sugars or carbohydrates. You can pack some treats like dark chocolate, too, and not feel too guilty about the calories because you’ve earned it. Try to eat within an hour after your ride so that you can replenish your body.
Keeping hydrated is also key so make sure you have water on hand at all times. Drink at least 8-12 ounces of water immediately before you bike, and keep replenishing with 8 ounces every half hour. Make sure to replenish your fluids after your ride, too. Sports drinks like Gatorade contain a lot of sugar in addition to the heavily advertised electrolytes, so try to avoid them unless you’re on a long ride.
Cycling Safety & Preventing Injuries
As with any type of physical activity, safety and injury prevention is extremely important.
Proper attire is a must, as wearing the right type of clothing will help prevent discomfort, which can lead to injury. And of course, the very first thing a biker should wear is a helmet!
Find a helmet that fits your head – they are usually not one-size-fits-all! Adjust your helmet to fit your head, and make sure it’s sitting level and not too snug. After any kind of impact or accident, replace your helmet, as it is likely to be damaged, even if you cannot see it. Also replace your helmet after 5 years, as heat, pollution, UV exposure, and weathering may weaken it.
Casual bikers do not need to buy cycling-specific clothing, especially if they will be riding a comfort bike or cruiser. However, they should take care not to wear clothing such as pants or dresses whose length may allow it to become caught in the gears. Shorts or tightly-fitted pants are ideal. Dress in layers as well, as headwinds can make it feel colder than it is.
For those who plan to bike more frequently or for longer durations, it may be a good idea to purchase performance clothing that wicks sweat away from the body. Padded bike shorts may make it easier to sit on the bike seat, and bright jackets can ensure you are visible to cars and other commuters.
To prevent physical injury, make sure you stretch before you ride. Stretching can help to prevent cramps and overuse injuries. The quadriceps and hamstrings are the most commonly cramped muscles, so take special care to stretch them.
If you do develop a cramp during your ride, take a break to massage the muscles. When the cramp subsides, continue but at ¾ of the intensity you were going.
Use the ball of your foot to pedal, not your heel, because the heel can strain the ligaments in the knee. If you are experiencing knee pain, have a bicycle shop examine your pedals. For kneecap pain, try raising your seat slightly to decrease the knee bend during pedaling.
Try to keep your back straight and your elbows slightly bent to prevent back and shoulder pain. Keep your grip firm yet relaxed, change hand positions frequently, and keep your wrists straight to prevent hand injury.
And of course, wear sunscreen when outside, obey all road rules, signal using hand signals, attach lights to your bike, and wear brightly colored clothing to increase visibility to motorists – common sense rules that are surprisingly uncommon.
This month, trade four wheels in for two. You might be surprised at how much fun you have and how much better you’ll feel. Happy biking!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.