You don't have to log thousands of miles to gain rewards from riding your bike more and driving your car less. Regardless of whether you're on a fancy new two-wheeler or the battered old reliable you bought years ago, bike riding gives you a terrific workout with lots of interest and fun to keep you going. And with U.S. gasoline prices running higher than $3 per gallon, using a bicycle for shopping, commuting, visiting friends or just taking a joy ride may help your financial health at the same time it boosts your physical condition.
Bike riding lets you add a fitness activity into your day even when you think you don't have time for a workout. "You get the same cardiovascular benefits from cycling that you get from any other form of aerobic exercise—walking, jogging or dancing," says Lisa Callahan, MD, medical director of the Women's Sports Medical Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "It can be a very effective cardiovascular benefit."
Your muscles get a boost, too. Bike riding strengthens your thighs, hips and rear end. If your route includes climbing hills, your arms and upper body will benefit as you stand to pedal. What's more, cycling is gentle on your joints and helps preserve cartilage. That's especially advantageous for women who suffer from muscle strain, foot problems, knee troubles, back pain or impact-related injuries caused by running, jogging or walking, Dr. Callahan explains.
"If you're overweight and start an exercise program, sometimes it's harder on your joints because you are overweight," she adds. "So something like swimming or biking that's not pounding on the joints can be a good thing."
Daily routine biking also can help fight the incremental weight gain and waistline expansion that many women experience at midlife.
Dr. Callahan points out that cycling on stationary bikes indoors is generally a lighter workout than riding outside because there's no wind resistance or challenging terrain. "In the gym, you have to work a little harder to get the same result," she says.
Fit to ride
The health benefits of cycling will be as flat as a punctured tire if your bike doesn't fit your body correctly. Poor fit causes all sorts of problems, so it's important to have your bike correctly adjusted specifically for you. "You can't just go someplace and buy a bike because you like the color," says Dr. Callahan, who not only treats sports-related problems but enjoys cycling on weekends.
When your bike is too big for your body, you can develop neck and back problems. Seat height is another source of woes—if the seat is too low, it may stress your knee and cause kneecap pain; too high, it can also aggravate your knee.
For the right fit, position the seat so that when you pedal down to the lowest point, your leg is almost straight. There should be a small bend in your knee of about 10 to 15 degrees.
To get a reliable fit, Dr. Callahan advises taking your bike to a bicycle shop and having them assess how well the frame height, seat, and handlebars suit you. A few adjustments can make riding more comfortable and protect you from fit-related troubles.