Cycling: Top five benefits & safety tips for better health and fitness

Cycling: Top five benefits & safety tips for better health and fitness

A lot of us have ridden a bicycle at least once in our lives. A good bunch of us had our own bicycles in our childhood. A bicycle is both accessible and affordable to multiple sections of society. For some, riding a bicycle is a way to express freedom, and experience fun. For others, bicycles are the means to earn their daily bread and butter. Nonetheless, if more people start cycling, we can build cleaner and healthier cities soon. This June 3rd, the world is celebrating its 4th Bicycle Day anniversary.

Why do we have a "World Bicycle Day"?

  • What does it mean for us?
  • What are the benefits of cycling and how to make it a safer practice?

Time to find some answers!

History of World Cycling Day

The idea of World Cycling Day started with an academic project taken up by Polish-American Sociologist, Dr Leszek J. Sibilski. The project was, "Exploring the role of bicycles in development". Sibilski initially penned down his thoughts in a blog post titled, "Cycling is Everyone's Business" in 2015. Also a former member of the Polish national cycling team, Sibilski has always been a strong proponent of cycling. In 2016, Sibilski followed up with another blog post titled,  "Why is there no World Day for the Bicycle?”, which created a ripple effect of sorts.

The idea turned into a grassroots movement that started receiving funding and support from Turkmenistan. At that time, Turkmenistan was already working on sustainable mobility solutions for its citizens. The movement got global recognition and the United Nations Organization (UNO) started supporting it.

On April 12, 2018, the UNO adopted a resolution to celebrate June 3rd as World Bicycle Day, commemorating the 200+ year legacy, importance, and versatility of the bicycle. This resolution was adopted in the 72nd UN General Assembly on April 12, 2018. World leaders were encouraged to organize bicycle rallies and contribute voluntarily to encouraging bicycle usage.

The UNO officially acknowledged the following points as merits of the beloved Bicycle.

  • A bicycle is simple, affordable, reliable, clean, and an environmentally fit mode of transportation. It is unique, long-lasting, and versatile. It has been promoting health and environmental benefits for more than two centuries.
  • The usage of bicycles improves awareness of the local environment. The practice inculcates a feeling of connectedness among the user community.
  • Bicycles are an easy means to access education, health care, and sport for the urban poor. The habit of cycling can increase the life expectancy of the users. This leads to an equitable distribution of health benefits among multiple communities.
  • Making the roads more habitable for cyclists and pedestrians can tremendously improve road safety in urban areas. Providing protected lanes for cyclists and establishing bicycle-sharing infrastructure can reduce the congestion on roads. 
  • Bicycle usage produces no vehicular carbon emissions. This leads to improved air quality. Manufacturing bicycles and bicycle parts require much fewer resources compared to a car or a motorbike. This is a way toward a green and sustainable economy.
  • Cycling can be practised by people of all ages. Since cycling has already been adopted all around the world, it has the potential to dramatically improve the health and well being of the human race.

Benefits of cycling

All this information about global health is great. But how does cycling help you as an individual? What are the exact benefits of riding this lean machine? Let’s find out!

  • Promotes weight loss - Cycling is a low-impact, cardiovascular exercise that can be beneficial in losing weight. Cycling is easy on joints (knees, ankles, and hip joints). A 70-kg person biking at a moderate pace (20-24 kph) burns around 300 calories in 30 minutes. This translates to losing 6-7 kg of body weight in 6 months. 

It should come as no surprise that cycling also strengthens and builds muscle, especially in your lower body (glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads). This extra musculature can help with additional weight loss and ideal body weight management.

Point to note: Weight loss needs a structured diet along with adequate physical activity. Cycling at a leisurely pace can take time to show results. To get faster results, you need to cycle at a challenging pace/intensity.

  • Improves balance and corrects posture - Since cyclists need to stay upright and maintain a balance as they ride, there is an automatic improvement in overall balance and bodily coordination.

Changes in body posture such as humpy back, curved spine, and abnormal gait are common problems with ageing. If not corrected, these can increase the chances of trips, falls, and injuries. Cycling also improves core strength, which becomes extremely important as you age to stay pain-free.

  • Enhances mental health - Cycling regularly can have a great impact on mood, cognition, decision-making capacity, and overall mental health.

Physical exercise releases endorphins, and dopamine. These are hormones that can block pain and gives you the sensation of pleasure and happiness. Cycling also increases the oxygen supply to your brain which gives you a natural high (often called biker’s high or runner’s high).

Other benefits of cycling include better sleep quality, improved memory retention, mood enhancement, and focus. All of which can help you age gracefully.  

  • Combats lifestyle diseases and chronic stress - Lifestyle diseases are the leading cause of annual total deaths in India. Taking up cycling can be your way of fighting lifestyle diseases.

Cohort studies conducted over 15 years indicated that mortality rates due to lifestyle diseases (Diabetes, heart stroke, high Blood Pressure etc.) are reduced by 24% for people who took up cycling. The percentage went down by 35% for people who continued cycling for 5+ years. Therefore, people who take up cycling also have a much lesser chance of falling prey to lifestyle diseases.

Even a quick 10-minute session on a bicycle can show a drastic difference when you are experiencing stress, lethargy, or fatigue.

  • Planet-friendly - In a sedan's parking space, you can park 10 bicycles. The carbon footprint of a bicycle is around 5% compared to a car.  Research says that switching from cars to bicycles just once a day can reduce transport-related carbon emissions by 67%. Whether you are cycling for work, running errands, or simply cycling for leisure or physical fitness, it is all sustainable living.

Fun Fact: Cycling has a lesser carbon footprint (on a per-kilometre basis) compared to both walking and taking public transport.

Challenges of cycling safely

While cycling comes with a lot of benefits, a lot needs to happen for the Indian roads to become safe for cyclists. Cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Nagpur, Vadodara, and Bhopal are developing initiatives like dedicated bicycle lanes, and bike-sharing services. However, the status quo of this infrastructure is far from ideal. There is a general disregard for cyclists and pedestrians on Indian streets. Many cities are still figuring out ways to solve this problem.

Currently, bicycles share the same roads as motor vehicle traffic. Bicycles are legally considered a vehicle in most of the Indian states and have to follow the same traffic rules as motor vehicles. In addition, cyclists experience a higher impact of harsh weather conditions like winds, rains, high temperatures etc. comparatively. Precaution and care are important if you cycle regularly. You can never be too safe, and here are a few tips you can follow depending on the amount of cycling you do.

Cycling safety tips

  • Follow all traffic rules - Try to keep left and yield to pedestrians when riding on the streets. Follow all the traffic signals and try to stay in the bicycle lane if there is one. Be cautious at crossroads, intersections, and busy streets, even if you have the right of way. Be a defensive driver and forecast danger ahead of time.  
  • Invest in protective gear - Wear a safe, and fitting helmet. Wear protection around joints (ankles, knees, elbows, and wrists). Bicycle accidents can be as dangerous as motor vehicle accidents. Use UV protected sunglasses and apply sunscreen to all the body parts exposed to natural elements. Invest in UV protected clothing. 

It is also common for bicyclists to experience harsh and unpredictable weather conditions. Have a rain/wind protection jacket handy and prepare for an alternative means of transport during harsh weather days.

  • Exercise caution when riding without daylight - When riding before dawn or after dusk, it is extremely important to have lights and reflectors (front and backside) on the bicycle. The golden principle to remember is “See and be seen”. Use neon jackets or reflector tapes to be visible to others on the road. Do not assume that you are visible to others. Install reflectors on tires, if possible. Despite all these efforts, riding at night is still dangerous compared to riding in the daylight. Be extremely cautious and mindful.
  • Do not overdo it - If you cycle every day (depending on the intensity), it is very important to allow complete rest days at least once a week. Rest days are extremely important for the body to recover from injuries and fatigue. Whether you are recovering from injuries or experiencing pain/soreness in certain areas of the body, listen to your body and take adequate rest. Rest days are a must if you want to improve your endurance levels and performance.  
  • Maintain the bicycle in good working condition - Like any other machine, your bicycle needs regular maintenance, cleaning, and lubrication to last long. Always check the brakes, tire pressure, and proper alignment of the bicycle. If you are a regular user, get your bicycle serviced (at least) once every six months. Always maintain an emergency tool kit (pump with pressure indication to inflate tires, puncture patches, required screwdrivers, wrenches, spare nuts, and bolts at the minimum).   

Closing

Dwindling natural resources and rapid urbanization are the reality of Indian cities today. Economic development is happening at a breakneck pace and the need for green alternatives is dire. As the UNO recommends time and again, bicycles can be the biggest missing piece in the transportation jigsaw puzzle we are solving. Public-Private partnerships and city planners should consider bicycles as a solution to air quality and traffic congestion problems. 

Cycling can be a hobby, a mode of recreation, a medium of commute, and a means of livelihood. Making this versatile vehicle a part of your household can build peace, tolerance, social inclusion, and health in your communities.

Until all this happens, keep cycling.

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