One of the key factors in living a long life is fitness. The problem is, though, that this often comes with a large measure of self-discipline that is not so easy for many to maintain in the long term. Many get around this problem by including exercise in their lifestyle. Cycling is, for many of us at least, one of the easiest and most utilitarian ways of achieving this useful conjunction between exercise and lifestyle.
Though there is some evidence that those partaking in high-level and competitive cycling gain more benefits than the general population, simply including regular cycling in one’s day-to-day activities will bestow considerable benefits in itself. For those who include cycling in their daily routine, the advantages beyond health and fitness will become increasingly obvious. Biking is convenient, easy and often represents a great economic choice.
Do Cyclists Live Longer?
As ever with such ideas, there is a need to separate the facts from the wishful thinking. Fortunately, in the case of cycling, the evidence does indeed seem clear that regular forays on two wheels will have dramatic and lasting effects on your health and fitness.
On the other hand, simply including regular cycling in your lifestyle is enough to obtain most of the benefits. If you wish to cycling 50 miles a day, by all means do so, but just using it for local commutes, trips down to the shops or cycling around the local estate or woods will be enough.
A recent epidemiological study examined the relationship between the sporting activities and lifespan of 80,306 British adults. They examined the association of six sports in all and found that cycling was amongst those that had the clearest associations with reductions in all-cause mortality (1).
Another study performed in Denmark in 2016 looked at 45,000 adults over a 20 year period. The researchers discovered that regular bike riding lowered the risk of heart attack by between 11% and 18% when compared to non-cyclists (2).
Is More Better?
There also exists clear evidence that those who partake in the sport of cycling at a much more intense level will gain even greater benefits. In 2007, a group of scientists at the University of Valencia in Spain examined a grand total of 834 veterans of the Tour de France. These sporting heroes (anyone who completes a Tour de France is a hero in my book) had completed the great race between 1930 and 1964.
These scientists compared the percentage of survivors for a given age to that of the general population in the countries that the cyclists came from (Belgium, France, and Italy). On average, those who had competed in Le Tour lived to 81.5 years. This compares very favourably with the average of 73.5 years for the general population.
In the summary for the study, they stated: “Our major finding is that repeated very intense exercise prolongs life span in well trained practitioners. Our findings underpin the importance of exercising without the fear that becoming exhausted might be bad for one’s health.” (3)
Interesting as this study is, however, I don’t think that the vast majority of people are going to want to train to the extent where entry into the Tour de France represents a possibility for them … Fortunately, one doesn’t need to squeeze into lycra and sprint up Alpe d’Huez in order to gain considerable benefit from being a cyclist.
Cycling and Aging
Exercise, in general, can help us to live longer and, perhaps more importantly, better. Cycling in particular though will help keep the immune system and muscles in prime condition. A recent British study showed that cycling into old age can produce people in their 80s having immune systems that look like that of a 20 or 30-year-old (4).
The researchers in this study pointed out that there is a significant association between age and function. On the other hand, that relationship varies greatly from individual to individual and is modified by inactivity. Given enough activity, particularly of such a pursuit as cycling, many bodily functions will be considerably improved and will appear to be that of a much younger person. The active tend to benefit from their activity and, vice versa, the inactive suffer the consequences of their inactivity.
In comparison to adults of similar age who lead much more sedentary lifestyles, those adults who maintained an active lifestyle, in this case continuing cycling into old age, had metabolic profiles that were fully comparable to much younger adults. Even octogenarians had balance and reflexes that looked like those of people in their 30s. Cognitively, their memories were also much sharper than those who had followed a more sedentary lifestyle.
T Cells and Cycling
There has also been some interesting research into cycling and the immune system. In particular, a group of researchers in …. looked at the production of T cells amongst older cyclists. Interestingly, those that remained involved in cycling in their later years produced similar levels of T cells to far younger adults in the 20s.
It seems clear from the research that cycling into old age is a valuable adjunct to keeping the immune system relatively young and helping to ward off all manner of threats that we otherwise might fall prey to (5).
Other Benefits of Cycling
The average journey taken in a car is well under ten miles. Indeed, given that many drive long distances each day, the normal use of a car for most people is probably closer to five. I live in a small town in Norfolk which, side to side, is no more than three miles. Even for the small distances involved in getting around such a small town most people still use a car.
The comfort and ease of car use have led to people falling into the comfort trap. This plays a crucial and very negative part in our problem with obesity and laziness. So much of modern life seems almost designed to tempt us into such things as inactivity, laziness and indulging in poor diets.
Fortunately, simply including a bike in your daily lifestyle offers a way out of this conundrum. Use of a bike on a daily basis will improve your health and fitness on many levels. This is especially the case if you are already unfit, obese or suffering from some of the myriad effects that come with modern sedentary lifestyles.
Often, in small towns or large cities, cycling can be quicker and more convenient than car use. I regularly ride into the town centre, a distance of a tad more than a mile. I once did an experiment comparing the door to door times from my house to Costa Coffee and was surprised to discover that the bike was actually one minute quicker. Given that I am merely a proficient cyclist in his mid 60s, my times are unlikely to be anywhere near as good as others would manage.
Economic Benefits of Cycling
Bike riding can also be done on a shoestring. Even brand new bikes can be had for scarcely more than £150. The better route though, in my opinion, is to look for better quality second-hand bikes on Facebook buy and sell sites, Gumtree or some other form of local trading. My wife’s second-hand Raleigh was originally a spare bike purchased for a grand total of £30 five years ago. We will need to change the tyres soon and we have spent something like £3 on oil for lubricating the chain and gears, and … that’s it.
Day to day running costs are pretty close to zero, though things do go wrong occasionally. My own bike suffered a minor catastrophe when a thick branch lodged itself in the drive chain and ruined the gear change mechanism. Even this calamity ended up costing less than £50 to repair with a local part-time mechanic who enjoys fixing bikes for fun.
Beyond major repairs, most of the maintenance involved in cycling is pretty simple. Pump the tires up, oil the drive-chain occasionally, check the cables for tension and tighten when necessary. That’s it. A child of ten could do it if they so desired.
Other Benefits of Cycling
Interestingly, and slightly surprisingly, cycling is in fact a safer means of getting about than walking. For every billion miles cycled in 2015, there were, unfortunately, an average of 30.9 fatalities. Every fatality is regrettable, of course, but the figure for cycling compares quite favourably with those for pedestrians. The latter group’s fatality figure came out as 35.8 per billion miles walked. This would mean that cycling is something like 14% safer than walking.
Access to the Countryside
One of the pleasanter aspects of owning a bike, particularly a mountain bike, is how you can load it onto the back of a car and subsequently use the bike to access all manner of beautiful, car-free routes. This makes the bike a great adjunct for days out or holidays, enabling all sorts of possibilities that were not there before.
Cycling is a surprisingly social activity. Personally, I share much of my cycling these days with my wife and child. We enjoy days out in the nearby forests and off-road cycling courses together. I also attend a local group who enjoy learning bicycle repair skills together.
It seems that regular cycling is convenient, relatively safe (compared to walking), economically efficient and bestows large and long term health benefits. It will keep your immune system young and offer a range of healthy possibilities and opportunities. All this, whilst saving you a small fortune in transport costs to boot. Why would one not wish to cycle, given such a readily available and beneficent bounty to be reaped from the practice?