This is what regular biking does to your body

Health

August 26th 2022

Bob Forgrave

What changes happen inside your body when you sit on a bike? It’s a lot more than you’d think.

Naturally, the extent of changes depend upon your commitment level–how often you ride and how long the habit lasts–so we’ll start small.

QUICK-JUMP REFERENCE OF HEALTH CHANGES:

Health benefits after just 20 minutes on a bike.

On a bike, you’re sitting, but not in the traditional sense. It turns out that sitting in a chair or car seat for extended periods of time without exercise is far more unhealthy than we thought:

“Any extended sitting — such as at a desk, behind a wheel or in front of a screen — can be harmful. Researchers analyzed 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels. They found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that posed by obesity and smoking.”  Mayo Clinic, Risks of Sitting Too Much

ills of sitting

We think we know what the problem is with sedentary sitting:

“Researchers aren’t sure why prolonged sitting has such harmful health consequences. But one possible explanation is that it relaxes your largest muscles. When muscles relax, they take up very little glucose from the blood, raising your risk of type 2 diabetes.”  Harvard Health Publishing, The Dangers of Sitting

This brings us back to sitting on your bike–that wonderful transportation device powered by the largest muscles in your body, that absolutely NEED to be exercised for your own health. 

on a bike

After just 20 minutes on a bike, the big muscles in your legs–your quads, hamstrings, and glutes–are actively pulling glucose from your body, helping reduce diabetes. And that’s only the start. They’re also moving blood through your legs, reducing likelihood of deep vein thrombosis, and the rest of your body, cleaning out toxins better.

Because you’re moving more blood, your heart jumps out of sedentary mode, along with your lungs that need to supply more oxygen. And because you’re on a bicycle, you’re in full control of the intensity of the workout. Want more intensity? Pedal faster or seek hills. Want less? Coast or downshift or an easier gear.

Meanwhile, there’s a completely different dynamic going on inside your head. Physically, that rush of fresh, heavy oxygenated blood starts to clear your mind. And assuming you are biking in a safe area–more on that later–you’re able to relax more, even as your body works harder. You see things on a bike that you would miss in a car. Scenic vistas. Neighborhoods. Neighbors. Whatever exercising you’re doing fades into the background, and worries start to melt away. Life is good.

bike in pink trees

Stress-free zone.

And, according to the World Health Organization, you’re already on the path to consistent good health. The weekly recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise works out to just about 20 minutes/day. Salud!

 

Health benefits of 45 minutes on a bike.

Suppose you rode 45 minutes on a bike, but every other day. First, you’d still be on track to meet your WHO health guidelines, even with rest days off. WOOHOO!

There are also some very interesting chemical things going on inside your body after 45 minutes:

  • More endorphins. These are the feel-good hormones that distance runners are looking for as the “runner’s high”, but you get to them with a lot less joint impact. You’ll have to push it a bit though, maybe build up a sweat, but that just cleans out your pores and makes your skin glow. 
  • Less cortisol. AKA, “the stress hormone.”  This is what triggers your anxiety, raises your blood pressure, increases your reaction to doomscrolling on your phone, and generally makes everything a lot more sucky. Bye bye! Expect cortisol levels to plummet about 15 minutes after a good workout.
  • More serotonin. This is the mood-regulating hormone. Great stuff, when it’s not being hoovered up by excess cortisol in your bloodstream. Now that you’ve freed it, you’ll have better results with sleep, digestion, avoiding nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting and sexual desire.

happy hormones

At less than an hour, it might be a bit premature to mention this, but cycling at a moderate speed of 12 miles/hour (16 kilometers/hour) burns over 500 calories per hour. And that calorie uptake can make a difference over time.

But the real weight loss benefit is in the hormones above. If you’re not stress-eating, maybe you won’t even need to burn off those two unfortunate glazed donuts (300 calories each). You can ride just 45 minutes at a relaxed pace, burn off less than 500 calories, have a big refreshing post-ride smoothie, and still end with a calorie deficit for the day.

 

Health benefits of two weeks of regular biking.

It’s amazing how adaptive the human body is. The same processes that identify you’re not using all your caloric intake and thoughtfully pack the rest away as fat battery packs on your hips and stomach also work in reverse in unexpectedly glorious ways.

When your body needs more energy, it breaks down fat into fatty acids, and then adenosine triphospate (ATP). This is when things get super cool…

While other folks who need more energy in their lives are downing 5-hour energy drinks for a quick hit and inevitable mental crash, you’re on your bike. Over a two week period, your body identifies that you’re using a lot of energy and retools at the cellular level to make your cells more efficient at absorbing and using ATP.

mitochondria

Mitochondria are small, but like batteries exactly where you need them

It happens in little energy factories called mitochondria that create ATP inside your muscle cells. Need more energy than is available? On its own, your body starts to create more mitochondria density in all your muscle cells, making your body stronger, faster, and more able to endure extended effort without fatigue. Is that cool or what?

An increase in enzymes leads to an ability to digest proteins and carbohydrates up to 4 times faster. You’re being rebuilt into an energy machine.

You’re also starting to build up the fine muscles and motor skills that help with balance, decreasing your risk of falls.

bike fall over

Yeah, that’s a bit less likely to happen now…

Meanwhile, on its own, your body starts to build up lymphocytes, the 20-40% of whole blood cells that help with immunity by attacking cancer, viruses, and foreign bacteria.

 

Health benefits after a month of regular riding.

At this point, you’re collecting the benefits that you already earned, making them part of the new you. Five different lifecycle trends combine to give you more energy every day:

  1. Your leg muscles have adapted to regular use, and have more built-in ability to tackle challenges like stairs.
  2. Your mind has adapted to accept a few more physical challenges. Maybe you take the stairs instead of the elevator just because you can.
  3. You’re getting more regular, deeper sleep, so you wake up rested and alert.
  4. Every time you get on your bike, assuming it’s in a safe area, your stress and all its nasty medical side-effects melt away.
  5. With lower stress, regular exercise, and more sleep, you’re now carrying less weight around and everything just seems easier.
walking up steps

Why take the elevator? This is faster now.

 

Health benefits after six months of regular riding.

Remember those mitochondria that were multiplying in your muscles to give you more superpowers at two weeks? The changes in your body don’t stop there. You’re about to hit another level of awesomeness in body morphing.

Your heart muscles have also been getting a workout. Some studies talk about your heart growing larger, but really it’s only like 2 millimeters. The big news is that your heart gets a lot more efficient. Like a pump that now pumps 50% more per stroke, it can do the same work with a lot less effort. 

heart anatomy

Even your ventricles now have well-trained muscles. An untrained heart pumps 100-135 ml per minute. An elite athlete’s heart can pump over 200 ml per minute. You’ll be in between.

 

Because your heart isn’t working so hard most of the day, your resting heart rate goes down. (Five-time Tour de France winner, Miguel Indurain, reportedly had a resting heart rate of just 28 beats per minute, compared to an average adult heart rate of 60-90 beats per minute.)

Congratulations…you now have a reduced risk for heart attack or congestive heart failure.  

And…after this much riding, you’re probably not riding alone anymore. You’ve got a riding buddy, or group of friends who like to go places by bike. Even alone, the rush of adrenaline, endorphins and serotonin can sweep away depression, but now your social world has opened up as well, giving you an even better outlook on life.

friends riding together

Exercise isn’t a task anymore. It’s a shared joy.

 

Health benefits after a year of regular riding.

Look back over the past year, and it’s amazing what challenges and risks you’ve put behind you: At a top level, you’ve improved cardiovascular health, thrombosis avoidance, blood pressure, weight management, lung health, digestive system health, immune system health, mental health,  balance and coordination . . . Seriously, what’s left???

Bones.

When you bike, you’re giving your bones a workout too. Not a joint high-impact workout like with jogging or running, but enough gentle stress on all the places where your muscles attach that your bones gradually adapt over the year to handle the load.  Even if you had osteoporosis, your bones will now start to approach normal, making your bones less likely to break in a fall. 

osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is improved with good nutrition . . . and consistent bike riding.

And finally…I don’t know if it’s the cumulative effect of taking your new body and mind for a spin or the social encouragement of those folks you’re now riding with, but you’re starting to collect challenges. You can do 30 miles because you’ve already done 20. There’s a cool ride someplace else, but it’s 50 miles; let’s do it anyway. Before you know it, you’re riding your first century–it’s just like a few practice rides in one day–and stockpiling that as a mental reference point of what you can do when you put your mind to it.

This is the new you.

 

A word about safety.

All of this, of course, assumes that you have a safe and interesting place to ride. A safe exercise bike in your basement isn’t going to give you the wind in your hair and the excitement to keep going. And busy streets full of recklessly speeding cars will be too exciting and a great reason to take days off for your own physical and mental health.

Chances are, either because of basic local safety or because you eventually want to explore a wider territory, you’re going to want to take your bike places.

But how? Buying a large car to fit around your bike seems a bit extravagant and backwards. The alternative, driving around with your precious bike on the outside of your car, vulnerable and dirty, doesn’t seem right either, even if you buy a car rack that won’t scratch your car or cover up your bumper sensors. 

car rack

This is still a fairly standard way of transporting a bicycle. I have no idea why.

There has to be a better way!

There is. It’s called a full-size folding bike. These bikes look like regular bikes, are rugged enough to be certified as mountain bikes (ISO-4210), yet can also fold them in half in 30 seconds and do this…

CHANGE bike in a trunk

Wherever Mario goes, it’s trail-riding time. And he never worries about bike theft or rusting components.

The end result, of course, is that you combine the health benefits of a bike-riding habit with of the mental enjoyment of riding in safe and enjoyable areas–all with a little more help in keeping that habit. After all, if something is easy, you’ll do it more often.

What’s standing between you and a healthier life through cycling? 

Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike,
which offers full-size folding bikes and
kits to make any bike take up half the space.


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