How You Can Get Back to Bicycling

This enjoyable exercise is great for your heart, easy on your joints

Contributor: Michael Schaefer, MD, Director, Musculoskeletal Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

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Warmer weather can be a great time to rekindle an old love — with the bicycle! When we were children, we rode our bikes all over the neighborhood. These simple machines gave us a delicious feeling of speed and freedom.

Now that we’re adults, bicycling offers an excellent form of exercise, especially for those of us who suffer with long-term joint problems.

Bicycling offers a variety of advantages:

  • Easy on the joints — Bicycling is a non-impact activity, meaning it puts less stress on the hips, knees and feet.
  • Adjustable intensity – Bicycling can be done at a wide range of intensities. If your tendency is to go a little slower, you can coast once in a while, or use the lower gears to ease the burden on your legs.
  • Comfortable in hot or mild weather — By bicycling, we generate our own breeze, so we can venture outdoors on warmer days. Bicycling is equally comfortable on cooler days with an added jacket or sweatshirt.
  • Benefits leg muscles in a big way — The benefits of bicycling are greatest for your leg muscles. Pedaling works most of the major muscle groups: the quadriceps on the front of your thighs, the glutes that you sit on and the hamstrings on the back of your thighs. It also exercises your calf muscles and the ankle groups.
  • Strengthens heart and lungs — Most important, bicycling works your heart and lungs. Increasing the pedaling speed, or adding hills, can give you an excellent cardiovascular workout.
  • Involves arms, shoulders and core — To some extent, your spine, arms, shoulders and core muscles also get a workout. For some people who have spinal stenosis, the bent-forward posture of bicycling can actually relieve pain. If you have neck or arm problems, however, consider using a recumbent (reclining) bicycle.

How to get started

If this all sounds great and you want to get out there and ride, here are a few important considerations.

  1. Talk to your doctor first.

Check with your primary care provider or musculoskeletal specialist to make sure that bicycling is appropriate for you. If you have known heart trouble or neurological issues, you should seek the opinion of specialists in these areas.

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  1. Think safety in choosing what to wear, including a bicycle helmet.

Always wear a bicycle helmet. Modern helmets are very lightweight, and have excellent ventilation. A helmet must fit properly to protect you, so it should be purchased and sized at a local bicycle shop.

You also should wear eye protection. Simple sunglasses are probably good enough.

Always wear brightly colored, visible clothing and ride during daylight hours only. Also, consider using bicycling gloves to protect your hands from vibration, or from injury in the event of a fall.

For longer rides, don’t forget the sunscreen.

  1. Be sure the bicycle fits your body

Bicycle fit also is important. Even if you are using an older bicycle that you’ve owned for years, you should visit a local bike shop to have it properly fit for you. Most reputable shops have salespeople who are trained in bicycle fitting. Many know about common orthopaedic conditions, and they often are able to make adjustments to help your bike accommodate them.

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For instance, patients with knee pain usually feel more comfortable with their seats in an elevated position. Neck pain often can be relieved by using raised handlebars. And a good pair of padded bicycling shorts goes a long way to preventing skin irritation.

  1. Map your route

When selecting your route, safety should be the most important consideration. Many towns have dedicated bike trails to keep you separated from traffic. Many local governments also publish or post online maps with recommended bike routes.

  1. Have fun and build up strength

Bicycling may take some getting used to, so don’t get disheartened if your first ride is more challenging than you expect it to be. Start with a short ride, perhaps just five or ten minutes. Give your body some time to adjust to the new position and exercise. Before long, you’ll be pedaling easily and whizzing along like a kid again!

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