Dear Doctor: My company provides perks for involvement in its wellness program, and I’ve decided to start biking the 4 miles (with a few hills!) to work. Do you think it’s a good choice? Any advice for getting started?
Dear Reader: First, congratulations for making this positive change in your life. Cycling is a terrific activity with multiple health benefits. Exercise, in general, has been shown to help boost energy; improve mood; reduce the risk of a range of diseases, including heart disease and certain cancers; maintain a healthy weight; add to strength, agility and flexibility; and aid in sleep.
As you cycle the 4 miles to and from work, you’ll use an impressive range of muscle groups. These include the hamstrings and quadriceps, which are the two major muscles in the legs; the calf muscles; the gluteals, which are the trio of muscles that make up the buttocks; the core muscles of the abdomen; and to a lesser degree, the muscles of the upper body. Conquering those hills will get your heart and lungs working and help build strength, stamina and endurance.
Cycling is an excellent resistance activity, which means it’s good for bones and bone density. It’s also a low-impact activity, so it’s kind to the joints. And the hundreds of tiny decisions needed to navigate a route and negotiate traffic help keep you mentally sharp. By the time you wheel into work after 30 to 45 minutes on the bike, you’ll have a nice endorphin glow with which to start your day.
The two main things to consider are conditioning and safety. If you haven’t been cycling on a regular basis, start by making sure your bike fits you properly and is in good repair. Your local bike shop can help you with that. Start training with short rides, gradually building up until you’re comfortable with your daily commute. The goal is to improve physical conditioning and also to become comfortable on the bike and out on the roads. Age plays a role as well. Once we hit our 40s, our muscles don’t perform at the same level as in our younger days. For older riders, this means more time to build strength, and longer to recover.
The main risks of cycling come from run-ins with motor vehicles, so you want to focus on safety. Always obey the rules of the road; for instance, be sure to ride with traffic, not against, and signal your turns. A common refrain from drivers is that they didn’t see the cyclist until it was too late. So make yourself as visible as possible with bright colors and reflective gear. In low light or darkness, make yourself known with reflectors, a white front light and red rear light on your bike, and again, reflective gear. And always -- this is non-negotiable no matter how short a distance you plan to ride -- wear a good helmet. It can save your life.
(Send your questions to email@example.com, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)