10 ways that cycling improves your physical and mental health

From lowering risk of cardiovascular disease to improving sex and sleep, coach Zach Nehr offers his perspective.

Photo: Adam Lapierre

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The prospect of cycling can be tough at this time of year. For most of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the temperatures have dropped, the seasons have changed, and there may even be snow on the ground.

Thankfully, virtual cycling platforms like Zwift can keep us entertained and motivated in the winter, and that’s more important than you might think.

Related: 5 Zwift racing tips from a pro

Of course, cycling makes you more aerobically fit, and it’s a great way to connect with friends. But cycling has an even bigger impact on your physical and mental health than that. In this column, we’re going to run through our top 10 ways that cycling improves your physical and mental health.

1. Cycling is a low-impact exercise perfect for all ages

As a non-weight-bearing activity, cycling is one of the safest and most effective forms of exercise for people of all ages. From children to adults and the elderly, you can get many of the same physical health benefits from cycling as you can from weight-bearing exercises such as running.

One study found that just a few weeks of non-weight-bearing cycling helped improve lower-limb power and strength in older adults. Most older adults struggle with running and other weight-bearing activities which can result in a variety of acute or chronic injuries. Cycling, on the other hand, presents a much lower injury risk whilst providing many of the same potential benefits.

However, cycling, as a non-weight-bearing activity, does not increase bone density, which is especially important for older adults. We recommend older adults perform 1-2 strength training sessions per week to help increase bone density and prevent injury.

2. Cycling helps improve your social life and opportunities

It’s hard to imagine a stronger social culture than cycling’s. From cafes to bike shops, to group rides and Wednesday Night Worlds, cycling has a widespread culture that transcends age and ability. Anyone can show up to the group ride, anyone can come chat at the coffee shop, and anyone can try their hand at the local criterium.

There are hundreds and thousands of cycling clubs around the world, and nowadays, there are more virtual groups than ever. When the roads turn icy, you can hop on Zwift and connect with 25,000 other cyclists riding in Watopia. In the cycling world, you never have to be alone, and the opportunities to connect with others are endless.

3. Cycling helps save time and money

More people than ever are trading in their cars for bikes, especially as more e-bikes hit the market. Nowadays, you can commute 30 miles on a cargo e-bike complete with fenders, racks, lights, and luggage space. You can commute your commuting time in half, all while exercising along the way.

Of course, bikes are pedal powered. And you won’t need to pay for a parking spot, make the train on time, or worry about filling up for gas on the way to work. You can also use your bike for more than just work. With a cargo e-bike, you could make full grocery runs without using a car. Many cyclists have already made the switch from cars to bikes, and the number only keeps on growing.

4. Cycling lowers your risk for debilitating diseases

There are countless studies that have found that cycling helps lower your risk for all sorts of diseases including heart disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all cause mortality. As a cardiovascular exercise, cycling strengthens your aerobic system as well as the muscles used for pedaling.

Plus, cycling is associated with other aspects of a healthy lifestyle such as regular exercise, mindful eating, and outdoor activity.

5. Cycling improves your mental health

One of the most underrated benefits of cycling is its positive effect on our mental health. Studies have shown that all kinds of cycling help improve mental health and well-being. This includes road cyclists, e- bike riders, commuters, and more.

Cycling, regular exercise, and getting outdoors all stimulate the release of crucial neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, and adrenaline. This helps boost our mood no matter the time of day, and puts a smile on our face as we pedal out of the driveway. Many people have cited cycling as crucial to their mental health journey in dealing with depression, anxiety, confidence issues, and more.

6. Cycling helps strengthen your lungs and immune system

As you would expect, exercising your lungs makes them stronger. And cycling does exactly that. Whether you’re riding at low-intensity or high-intensity, you’re breathing harder on the bike than you are sitting at your desk. Not only can cycling increase your lung capacity, but it also is a great therapeutic tool for those with COPD.

In the same way cycling helps reduce your risk for chronic disease, it also helps strengthen your immune system and fight off short-term illnesses. This effect occurs regardless of cycling intensity, which is good news for casual cyclists and the elderly. Low-intensity cycling alone can help strengthen your immune system.

7. Cycling can help you lose weight

Weight loss is a tricky subject in the cycling world, but it is also one of its main benefits. For people with weight to lose, cycling is the perfect non-weight-bearing activity to burn calories and especially fat.

Cycling can burn anywhere from 300 to 1000+ calories per hour at varying intensities. Because it is non-weight-bearing, many cyclists enjoy riding for multiple hours at a time, which is almost impossible to do with other activities such as running or hiking. Only experienced runners or hikers can handle a multi-hour activity without putting themselves at risk of injury.

Of course, there is a healthy balance between cycling and weight loss. You should always fuel your rides and workouts, but you can also operate on a small calorie deficit if you’re trying to lose weight. As a rule of thumb, a healthy weight loss goal is to lose no more than one pound (0.45 kg) per week.

8. Cycling helps build muscle and improve coordination

As you would expect, cycling builds the muscles that it uses. This includes the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and lower back. Building muscle increases strength and power, and more than just on the bike. The act of riding a bicycle also improves your coordination and balance, especially if you are a bike racer, mountain biker, or cyclocross rider.

9. You can see the world by bike, a perspective like no other.

There is nothing that compares to seeing the world by bicycle. Oftentimes, a car feels too fast, and a walk feels too slow. You can go flying by the countryside in a car, or crawl along a nature path on foot. But when you’re on a bike, you can see and hear over 100 miles of nature in a single ride.

When you’re on a bike, you can stop at any moment, take pictures at the top of the mountain, and feel the wind on your face as you descend through switchbacks. It’s like traveling and living simultaneously, and in my mind, it’s a feeling like no other.

10. Cycling helps improve your sleep and sex life

Sleep is almost like a powerful drug, yet few people use it to its full potential. Getting good sleep boosts your cognition and endurance performance, reduces your risk of injury by up to 65 percent, and lowers your risk of all-cause mortality. Sleep is available to us 24/7, yet so many of us don’t get enough.

A recent study showed that cycling and high-intensity exercise can result in improved deep sleep and overall sleep quality. Thus, the message is two-fold: cycling helps improve your sleep, and sleep helps improve your cycling. So get out there and start sleeping!

Another benefit of cycling is improved sex life. Regular sex helps us live longer and enjoy life to the fullest. In fact, studies have actually linked sex frequency and quality with a lower risk of cardiovascular events in both men and women.

It makes sense when you think about it because the same muscles are used in cycling and typically used during sex. Cycling improves cardiovascular fitness, as well as muscular strength and endurance in the hips, thighs, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. You could say the same about the other activity.



Utilizing Heart Rate and RPE to Prescribe Cycle Ergometer HIIT in Older Adults: A Feasibility Study

The effect of cycling on cognitive function and well-being in older adults

Cycling is associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases and death: Part 1 – systematic
review of cohort studies with meta-analysis

Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise

Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes

Mortality Associated with Short Sleep Duration: The Evidence, The Possible Mechanisms, and The Future

The effects of evening high-intensity exercise on sleep in healthy adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Is Sex Good for Your Health? A National Study on Partnered Sexuality and Cardiovascular Risk Among Older Men and Women

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.