Bicycling for Fitness

What are the benefits of bicycling?

Even if it didn’t do anything for your health, riding a bicycle would still be a great way to get around. Bicycles don’t pollute, and they let you see the neighborhood or the countryside at a leisurely speed without a car window getting in the way. And, as you no doubt remember from your childhood, bicycles are just plain fun.

That said, they are also serious exercise devices. Depending on how fast you pedal, you could easily burn 700 to 1,000 calories in an hour. You’ll be strengthening your heart and lungs while you tone the muscles in your lower body. Cycling is relatively gentle on the joints, which makes it a good choice for people who are overweight or who suffer from arthritis. And unlike a treadmill, a bicycle can actually get you somewhere. If you can bike to work, you’ll automatically add real exercise to your day.

How should I choose a bicycle?

If you want a bike for riding around town, you should steer clear of super-rugged mountain bikes or the high-end road bikes. In either case, you’ll be paying extra for features that aren’t going to make your rides any more enjoyable. A hybrid or “city” bike will give you the best combination of stability, durability, and speed.

It goes without saying that the seat needs to be comfy, or at least comfy enough to get through an hour or so of riding. You should have to lean forward slightly to reach the handlebars. Stand over the frame; if you have less than two inches of clearance over the top bar, you’ll need a bigger bike. You should be able to adjust the seat so that your knees bend only slightly when the pedal is at its lowest point. If you want to use your bike for commuting and errands, consider getting one with a rack and a basket.

Toe clips that attach your feet to the pedal can be a handy accessory. You’ll be able to lift up on the pedal as well as push down, a motion that can take some of the stress off of your knees. Serious road cyclists have special cycling shoes that clip into pedals, but those aren’t a good choice for beginners. (If you pull up to a stop sign, it’s easy to forget that your shoes are attached to the pedals until you’ve already started to tip over.)

Of course, don’t leave the store without buying a helmet. No real cyclist would be caught without one.

What else should I do to stay safe>

Make sure your helmet fits snugly. Follow the rules of the road, and if you ever ride at during night or low light, make sure your bike is visible. You’re required by law to have red lights or reflectors on the back of your bike and a white light in the front. Use a flashing rear light at night. Some reflective clothing is a good idea, too — even during the day.

Here are some other tips from expert cyclists:

  • Use a mirror and never move left without looking behind you first.
  • Don’t pass on the right.
  • If a car is already waiting at a red light, stop and wait behind it rather than beside it (this is often the driver’s blind spot, so avoiding it can help save you from a debilitating accident).
  • To avoid cars pulling out of side streets and driveways, honk your bike horn if you see one approaching or waiting. If you can’t make eye contact, slow down and prepare to stop if you need to.
  • Ride far enough to the left to avoid crashing into a car door if it opens unexpectedly.
  • Don’t wear an iPod in traffic. You need to be able to hear the cars around you.
  • Watch the road for glass, sand or gravel, low hanging tree branches, and other hazards.
  • Don’t drink and ride.

What’s the best technique for cycling?

Cycling should be fluid, not herky-jerky. Your feet should move in smooth, even circles while your upper body stays mostly still. You’ll want to find a gear that gives you decent resistance but is still comfortable. It should take a little less than one second to complete one full revolution of the pedals. If you can count “one Mississippi” between strokes, you should try picking up the pace a little.

How do I get started?

Don’t try to do too much too soon. Start with short rides of 10 miles or so on mostly flat roads or paths without a lot of traffic. When that becomes easy, you can add five miles or so to your routine. You’ll want to avoid big hills when you’re first staring out, but hills can be a fun challenge as you get in better shape. (You’ll especially enjoy the part where you get to come back down.)

Eventually, riding to work or hopping on the bike for fun will just become a habit, and you won’t even give much thought to the fact that you’re exercising. And you know what they say about staying in shape: Once you learn how, you never forget.


National Health Service. Cycling: Getting started. 2010.

Harvard Medical School. Calories burned in 30 minutes of routine and leisure activities.

AARP. Alternative transportation: Bicycling. 2010.

League of American Bicyclists. Ride for your health. 2010.

By Chris Woolston, M.S.

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