Bicycling, like any other physical activity, can not only contribute to your health, but also cause injury. On the whole, however, the benefits of cycling outweigh the liabilities. Physical inactivity leads to obesity and poor health. It’s estimated that the “health return” for bicycling over the entire population is 20-to-1, or twenty years of life for every year lost to injury. Other studies have shown that bicycle riding reduces a person’s risk of death by 40%. Physical exercise has been linked to increased well-being and better health for people of all ages and bicycling, done correctly, is an excellent exercise for improving cardiovascular health and improving your general fitness.
Unlike other forms of exercise, bicycling often serves a practical purpose and so, becomes an effort that is not really exercise. People tend to put off doing exercise for its own sake, so bicycling becomes the exercise you do because you have to do it for another reason. Bicycling is also considered a low-impact exercise and is perfect for people who have joint problems — in fact, bicycling is often used as therapy in rehabilitation programs for injured knees.
One thing to remember with bicycling, like all types of exercise, is the posture you use — use the wrong posture and you’ll hurt yourself. Standing up on the pedals puts your weight and your legs and makes them work. In the past, it was thought that an stooped aerodynamic posture is the best one for bicycling, but, though such a posture may work well for racers, for the average person, an upright stance works best as an exercise that works the body.
Injuries from bicycling fall into two categories: strain and trauma. Strain results from the overuse of muscles and joints not ready for the physical effort involved in bicycling; trauma is the result of accidents. Statistics bear out that the number of slight injuries from bicycling are equal to or less than the number of injuries resulting from walking; major injuries, however, are more likely with bicycling than from walking — this statistic makes sense when you realize a serious injury incurred while bicycling is usually the result of a collision with a motor vehicle. The remedy for this situation, then, is to wear a helmet and follow bicycling road rules.
Another interesting statistic about bicycle injuries is that 20% of all bicycle injuries do not involve another vehicle or person. To make sure you do not fall in that category, be sure you understand the workings of your bike and know when some part needs repair — also, keep your bike well-maintained and build up miles of experience so that the unexpected incident does not knock you off your bike. Many bicycle accidents occur at night, so make sure your bicycle lights are in good working condition.
Knee strain is a common complaint among bicyclists. The first step to avoid such strains is to have your bicycle adjusted to your frame — that means positioning your saddle to create an angle down from the horizontal of about 25-35 degrees. A saddle that is too high will cause pain at the front of the knee; a saddle that is too low will cause pain at the back of the knee. Adjust the pedals too so that you are not overextending your leg with each rotation.
Insufficient training before long rides can also cause knee problems. Make sure you practise on long hills and on series of hills one after another before going for a long bike tour. Experiment to find the correct low uphill gear that puts the least strain on both your muscles and your knees — though your muscles may be capable of pedaling at a higher gear up a hill, your knee joints may not find use of that gear comfortable.
You may have heard of repetitive stress injury as it applies to office workers — continual use of a keyboard can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful inflammation of the wrist. Bicycling can also cause such injuries. Any joint or bone that bears weight while cycling can become inflamed — besides the wrist, another area of the body to check is the base of the palm of the hand, where excessive pressure on the ulnar nerve can cause inflammation.
Muscle aches are a natural result of using muscles that hadn’t been used much. So, don’t panic when your muscles do begin to ache when you bicycle more and more. Take it slow, though — increase the distance you travel by bike gradually. Don’t buy a bike and expect to start out with a two-hundred kilometre tour of the Alps. Take it easy, start out slow and soon you’ll be surprising yourself with how far you can go on a bicycle.