The Medical Minute: The many health benefits of cycling
Getting outside on two wheels can improve health and fitness, build muscles and boost your mood.
Plus, for most people, it's fun.
Deb Tregea, senior exercise physiologist and campus wellness coordinator at Penn State College of Medicine, had many of those things in mind as she helped plan and implement a new bike share program on the Hershey campus.
“It's a practical thing in that it's getting us out of our cars and using our own power for transportation,” she said. “And it has a lot of health benefits.”
Dr. Alan Adelman, a family medicine physician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said cycling can be an excellent source of cardiovascular conditioning. “That helps prevent weight accumulation, decreases the risk of heart disease and risk for diabetes,” he said.
General fitness guidelines for adults recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. In order to improve cardiovascular health, it's recommended that adults get at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five times a week at an intensity that is not easy, based on perception of exertion. The varied terrain of outdoor cycling can provide riders with the type of interval training that has been shown to be very beneficial for cardiovascular health.
“The inconsistency of outdoor cycling can be advantageous,” Tregea said. “Working hard to climb a hill – even just a small one – followed by the recovery of going down the other side is similar to high intensity interval training, which is very popular, and we know that it is an effective way to do physical conditioning.”
Also, because cycling is a low-to-no-impact activity, it can be a good option for those who have osteoarthritis and want to minimize wear and tear on their joints.
Tregea said those with knee issues that are related to leg strength can find their condition improved by riding a bike because of how it strengthens leg muscles.
Adelman said the mental health benefits of cycling can be just as great as the physical ones. “People get a high and feel better mentally from physical activity in general,” he said.
Because cycling is a multi-generational activity, families can do it together, or people can join with others to get the benefits of socialization while they pedal.
While most people who are relatively physically fit may not get much of a workout during a leisurely ride from one building on the Hershey campus to another, Tregea said simply being outdoors and physically active can do a lot of good.
“There's the sunlight, the colors, the fresh air and the feeling of the wind on your face and in your hair,” she said. “Changing speeds and gazing into the distance – along with new sights, sounds and smells – can add variety to days often spent indoors or gazing at screens.”
Tregea says since the bike share program on the Hershey campus started, she has been collecting stories of how cycling is making a difference in the health of the community. “One man told me it had been 30 years since he had been on a bike,” she said. “As you get older, there are balance issues to be aware of, but your body remembers how to do it.”
On another occasion, a medical student shared with her how fun it was to pedal around with his studious classmates, dinging the bells on the bikes and remembering the fun they had as kids. “He said it was the best thing,” she said. “It just helps create a positive mood.”
The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.
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