If it's been a few years — OK, maybe decades — since you hopped on a bike, there's no better time to take up this low-impact exercise. Even if you've been pedaling on a stationary bike for exercise, it doesn't compare to the actual experience of hitting the road.
"Biking among people 50 and over has grown in recent years, especially due to the introduction of e-bikes and better infrastructure," Tim Blumenthal, president of the national nonprofit bicycle advocacy group People for Bikes, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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And you're certainly not alone if you let the habit fall by the wayside: According to the 2018 U.S. Bicycling Participation Report commissioned by People for Bikes, 89 percent of participants who didn't ride in the past 12 months have ridden a bike at some time in their lives.
Since the coronavirus pandemic has forced many Americans to get more creative with their commutes to avoid crowded buses and trains, more people over 50 are relying on bikes to run errands and get around town.
"While ridership has increased for all ages during the pandemic, certainly a subset of those new riders are people over 50," Blumenthal says.
Whether you're easing back into biking or are taking it up as a new sport entirely, you can learn from these training tips and strategies to help you get started.
6 Steps to Start Cycling Over 50
As always, the first step is to get the green light from your doctor that starting any new exercise — cycling including — is a good routine for you, especially if you're currently recovering from an injury or have a health condition.
But once you get the all-clear, here's how to get started on your new bike journey.
1. Build Strength and Balance
"It's important to have balance and coordination if you want to get on and off your bike and ride outdoors," says Erik Moen, physical therapist and owner of Seattle-based Corpore Sano Physical Therapy and BikePT.
If you're not entirely comfortable with your abilities in these areas, add exercises like planks, glute bridges and unilateral movements to build balance, coordination and core and lower-body strength before hopping on a bike.
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2. Gear Up
If you have a bike in your basement or garage that you want to use, make sure to have it checked out by a bike mechanic. At the minimum, you'll need air in your tires if your bike has been sitting around for years. However, you might need access to a new bike altogether.
With the plethora of bike styles out there, how do you choose the right one for you? Moen breaks down the most common types of bikes and what workouts they're ideal for:
- Cruiser: This is the least expensive option with bikes ranging from $150 to $500. It's also the easiest to start with. It has a large, padded saddle, upright handlebars and wide tires to make for a comfortable ride. The step-through frame also makes it easy to get on and off the bike.
Generally available without gears, cruisers are good for riding on flat surfaces, but they aren't ideal for riding on hills.
- Hybrid: This is a popular option for recreational riders of all ages. It has a price range between $450 and $2,000 and comes equipped with a flat handlebar, gears and shifters.
It also has a large, comfortable saddle and wide tires (not as wide as a cruiser). They come equipped with different gears to make riding up hills easier. Because of this, they are best for commuting and running errands.
- Mountain: These bikes offer more gears and wider tires than hybrids, and absorb more shock for riding over rock or debris. They usually cost between $450 and $4,000. Moen says this is a solid option for people with back problems, since the shock absorption feature makes it less jarring on the back than other bikes.
- Gravel: These bikes are excellent for cycling on mixed surfaces, including gravel and dirt roads. It's the closest option to a road-racing bike, but it has wider tires and an upright position for comfort. Because of their versatility, they also cost a little more — usually $1,000 to $7,000.
- E-bike: The Cadillac of bikes, electric bikes work just like regular bikes but include an electric assist if you're feeling tired or want to move faster.
They have heftier price tags between $1,400 and $10,000, but Moen says this is a great option for people who aren't very active and want to start cycling. They might also be a good option for those who commute to work and don't exactly want a full-blown sweat session before heading to the office.
Once you've decided on one or two bike options, test out your choices at a local bike shop. Make sure that you also get a proper bike fitting by an experienced bike shop fitter or a physical therapist. Moen cautions that people age 50 and over have specific needs in terms of proper bike fitting.
For example, "if you haven't ridden in 20 or 30 years, your tolerance to reach handlebars and pedals decreases, so you may need to make adjustments from previous fittings," he says.
Plus, you may need to adjust the height of your seat, apart from what's usually recommended. "Instead of the typical racing position, I like to start older riders in a more conservative position," Moen says. "A lower seat height makes it easier to ride, and as people get stronger, I readjust the seat height."
These modifications will also help prevent pain and safety issues. That's why it's best to try these things out on a bike before you make a definitive choice.
3. Practice the Basics
If you haven't ridden a bike in a while, it's important to reacclimate yourself to the different gears and safety features, says Colin Izzard, a Brevard, North Carolina-based premier level coach with the cycling team CTS, who specializes in coaching beginner and professional cyclists.
He suggests these bike drills for new cyclists over 50; try to do them in a grassy area, empty parking lot or somewhere else without cars or other exercisers.
- Start riding and pedal slowly while keeping your balance.
- Stop by braking (it's easiest to grip the front and back brakes together) and putting one foot down without falling over.
- Make left and right turns.
- Shift gears up and down.
- Use hand signals for left and right turns, slowing and stopping.
4. Warm Up Before Your Ride
As with any activity, warm-up and cooldown exercises will help prevent injury. Moen recommends warming up by pedaling at a low intensity for a few minutes. After riding, walk for a few minutes and do these static stretches:
- Quadriceps stretch: Start standing and bend one leg behind you so your heel touches your butt. Hold this position for 30 to 45 seconds on each leg.
- Glute stretch: Start standing and cross your right foot on top of your left knee. Hinge at the hips and sit back into your heel, holding for 30 to 45 seconds. You can hold onto a pole or another sturdy object to help you balance.
- Standing back bend: Start standing and reach your arms overhead. Bend back as far as your strength and mobility allow to counteract the hunched-over cycling position. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds.
5. Start Slow
When you've mastered basic balance skills and practiced braking and changing gears, Izzard says you can practice biking around other cyclists, walkers, runners and drivers.
Build up your endurance slowly, Moen says. You can slowly increase the length and distance of your rides over a six- to eight-week period, beginning with a few minutes or miles at a time.
"A good starting goal for cyclists over 50 is to be able to cycle for 30 minutes, then 45 minutes, 60 minutes and more on a flat surface. Some cyclists will be fine with 30 minutes," he says.
If you need more help, you can find local coaches and classes through the League of America Bicyclists. You can also find beginner cycling how-to videos from the League of American Bicyclists and Bike New York.
6. Follow Traffic Rules
Cycling safely is important at any age, but especially for people over 50, who are more likely to suffer fractures from falling than younger folks, according to a September 2012 study in the International Journal of General Medicine.
"Start by using bike and multi-use paths," Moen says. Work your way up to riding on roads, even those with bike lanes, to get familiar with drivers, intersections and opening car doors.
Once you begin cycling on roads, you'll need to observe driving laws, as bicycles are considered vehicles. This includes using hand signals, riding on the same side of the road as traffic and abiding traffic rules at lights and stop signs.
Read up on state bike laws to learn the rules of passing, whether you can wear headphones during your ride or bike on sidewalks (neither of which Moen recommends) and more.
Wherever you ride, most experts insist that helmets are essential for safety. It's also a good idea to ride only when weather conditions are good, as cycling in heavy rain or wind can be dangerous. Make sure to wear reflective gear during early morning or evening rides.
At some point you'll likely end up getting a flat tire on a bike ride. Most cyclists carry a basic tire repair kit on their bikes, which includes tools, a spare tube, air for the tire and tire levers. These are available along with other equipment at bike shops. Many shops also offer classes on fixing a flat tire, or you can learn from YouTube videos.
Cycling Workouts We Love
Why Bike After 50?
Outdoor cycling provides a variety of physical benefits, including strengthening the heart, building muscle and bone mass and improving balance and endurance — all of which are especially important for people over 50, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
In fact, falls are the leading cause of injuries for older adults in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Breaking a bone after a fall is more common as a person ages because your bones begin to deteriorate after age 50, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. But because cycling is a low-impact sport, it puts less stress on the joints while helping you build muscle around them.
What's more, cycling is tied to a lengthier life, according to a November 2018 American Journal of Preventive Medicine study. In the research, new and seasoned cyclists between the ages of 50 and 65 who cycled from one to 60 minutes per week had a lower risk of dying than people who skipped out on cycling.
Joining a bike club with older adults may do wonders for your mental health, too. In a small August 2017 study of older Japanese adults in BMC Geriatrics, group fitness activities increased feelings of connection and joy.
Find a bike club near you by entering your location in the League of American Bicyclists website. Many areas have clubs specifically for older adults, like the Claremont Senior Bicycle Group in California and the Senior Bike Group in Richfield, Minnesota.
“The beauty of cycling is not just the physical benefits,” says Don Braverman, 87, a long-time member and past president of the Boca Raton Bicycle Club. "More important to me is that it's enriched my life socially. I’ve made more lasting friendships from biking than anywhere else," he says.
- Internal Journal of General Medicine: "Analyzing the Problem of Falls Among Older People"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Deaths from Falls Among Persons Aged ≥65 Years — United States, 2007–2016"
- BMC Geriatrics: "Regular Group Exercise Contributes to Balanced Health in Older Adults in Japan: A Qualitative Study"
- People for Bikes: "2018 U.S. Bicycling Participation Report"
- Harvard Health: "The Top 5 Benefits of Cycling
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Falls and Fall Injuries Among Adults Aged ≥65 Years — United States, 2014"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Osteoporosis: What You Need to Know as You Age"
- American Journal of Preventive Medicine: "Associations Between Changes in Cycling and All-Cause Mortality Risk"
- The League of American Bicyclists: "Signaling"
- The League of American Bicyclists: "Smart Cycling Videos"
- The League of American Bicyclists: "State Bike Laws"
- Bike New York