We bike advocates are always ready with our list of reasons to ride bikes: Bike riding promotes health and fitness, saves money, saves the environment, and it’s fun. Each of these would be good subjects for columns, and in the future I plan to discuss each one. I will start with the first reason on the list, cycling and fitness.
We have been told all of our lives that we need exercise. Experts tell us that regular exercise improves our mood; helps prevent and control a range of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain cancers; helps us manage our weight; helps us sleep better; and gives us more energy for everyday activities as well as for recreation (including sex). The benefits of basic fitness are available by spending only 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, in medium-intensity exercise, such as cycling.
But even this relatively small investment in time and effort is difficult for many of us. From cars to elevators to electric pencil sharpeners, modern technological society eliminates nearly all physical effort from our lives. Our demanding schedules make it difficult to squeeze in a daily trip to the gym or even a walk around the neighborhood. Even for those who can find the time, exercise for the sake of exercise is fundamentally boring. In spite of the physical benefits, walking or pedaling on a machine that goes nowhere or picking up weights just to put them down again can feel like the very definition of futility, especially when we have to do it day after day to realize those health benefits. This combination of time pressure and boredom has defeated many well-intended exercise programs.
The best way to guarantee that you get regular exercise is to build it into your life and routine, and one way to do this is to power our own daily transportation. Bike commuting is a great way to do this.
Bike riding is a gentle exercise that is easy on the joints. Because the muscles that are doing the work do not have to support body weight, cycling makes it relatively easy to develop endurance and gain cardiovascular and weight control benefits. And cycling is great for the legs and lower back.
Cycling is not a perfect exercise. It does not do much for the upper body, nor does it help much with bone density. The ideal training program would combine cycling and resistance exercises and some walking or running, but that sounds too much like the exercise program that we don’t have time for. But regular bike riding does provide enough basic fitness that we can enjoy the walking and the stair climbing we used to avoid, and we can work longer in the yard and use the muscles we missed on the bike.
Bike riding for fitness does not require a special bike, but it does require a bike that is in good repair. A bike that fits well and is adjusted to be comfortable and efficient for the rider will make riding pleasant and prevent injury. Gearing that is low enough to get you up the hills of your daily ride will mean that riding does not feel like a chore on those days when you don’t feel frisky. Since the goal is regular exercise integrated into daily life, lights for the short days of winter and fenders for wet weather are important for safety and practicality.
A person who rides strictly for the daily commute will gain most of the benefits of basic fitness, but it can be fun to take it farther. Exploration of back streets and new routes will open up new possibilities for using your bike, both for errands and recreation. And for those days that you just need to blow off some nervous energy after work, it’s nice to develop some long-way-home routes.
Bike commuting can be the base for a higher level of fitness. Add a longer weekend ride on top of your regular commute and you will be ready for adventure. My 40 or 50 miles per week commuting and running errands plus a weekend country ride gets me to a level at which I can readily do a leisurely century or take off on my bike for a camping trip. I can also go on a long hike or a canoe trip without any problem.
Going fast – keeping up with fast friends, doing a fast century, or maybe even trying competition – requires training techniques that go beyond the scope of what I have room to talk about here, but there are many books and magazine articles to explore on the subject. Going fast on the road requires a weekly rhythm of training for endurance, speed and recovery. It can be very demanding and also intensely fun and rewarding. Most of us can not maintain such a demanding regimen for long, but if it is built on a foundation of using a bike for transportation, we will always have that base level of healthy fitness to fall back on.
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Note: This post was written as a column for the Hellbender Press, an environmental newsletter formerly published in Knoxville and distributed from Asheville to Chattanooga. The Hellbender ceased operations before this column was published. I may also post some earlier columns.