From improved heart health and weight loss to strength training and stress relief, the benefits of cycling are well-documented. But when your butt finds that seat and your feet start to pedal, you may be surprised at just how beneficial cycling is for your body — and your mind.
Cycling works several muscles in your lower body, including your quads, glutes, hamstrings and hips, but when it's done vigorously for exercise, your abs are also getting a great workout. Additionally, your heart — which is also a muscle — is getting a fabulous cardiovascular workout. Even your brain reaps the benefits.
Health Benefits of Cycling
There are so many benefits of cycling that it's difficult to pinpoint the most important, but somewhere at the top of the list is improved heart health. The heart, just like all other muscles in your body, needs regular exercise.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), regular aerobic activity leads to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia, Alzheimer's disease and several types of cancer. It may also result in a better night's sleep and enhanced cognition. Furthermore, people who exercise regularly report fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and a better quality of life.
AHA recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
When done with regularity, cycling can increase your overall cardiovascular endurance, especially when you add high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to the mix. This is achieved by increasing your intensity to 80 percent or higher of your maximum output in short bursts of time, followed by recovery.
For beginners, try 30 seconds of intense pedaling by increasing resistance and moving faster, followed by 60 to 90 seconds of low resistance pedaling to recover your legs and bring your heart rate back to normal.
HIIT is a proven way to burn more calories than with steady-state exercise. That's because anaerobic training uses the body's reserves of energy and, after a workout, it keeps your metabolism elevated to burn energy more efficiently throughout the day. It also leads to increased muscle volume and definition, as HIIT places a significant amount of metabolic stress on muscle tissue.
Target the Lower Body
As you might imagine, a bike — whether it's a type of outdoor bike or an indoor bike — has additional strength benefits for your body. Ride uphill or add lots of resistance on your indoor bike for a couple of minutes and you'll quickly feel the burn start to creep in on your lower half. Not only does this form of resistance training improve the strength of your quads, glutes, hamstrings and hips, but it also improves your overall muscle endurance.
Many people are excited to find out that cycling works the abdominal muscles too. This activity alone won't get you the six-pack you've been dreaming about, but it will certainly help.
When you push, pull, stand, climb and descend, your abs are hard at work to keep you balanced and centered on the bike. This natural engagement as you go through your workout can help lead to a slimmer, more toned midsection.
When you choose cycling specifically for your aerobic activity, your body might thank you in other ways too. For example, Harvard Health Publishing states that cycling is easy on the joints.
Researchers explain that when you sit on a bike, you put your weight on a pair of bones in your pelvis called the ischial tuberosities, which releases impact on the legs and feet. This may benefit those with joint pain or age-related stiffness — and the resistance work of pushing pedals may help increase bone density.
Keep in mind that using a poorly fitted bike, however, can lead to pain in the back, hips, shoulders, neck and upper extremities. That's why it's important for beginners to work with a professional trainer or visit a local bike shop to get the proper fitting.
Burn Calories and Have Fun
You can find out approximately how many calories you burn cycling by using Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET) value and a little math. To start, convert your weight to kilograms by dividing it in pounds by 2.2. Then, take that number and multiply it by the MET value of your particular activity to determine how many calories you burn in 60 minutes.
Here's an example. If a 150-pound person did a very vigorous 30-minute spin class, he or she would burn approximately 476 calories. To do the math, take 150 pounds and divide it by 2.2, which is 68 kilograms. Then, multiply 68 by the MET value assigned to a very vigorous indoor cycle class (14.0) to get 952 calories burned in an hour. That number, divided by two (for a 30 minutes session) equals 476 calories.
To help burn calories more efficiently, make sure you use proper cycling form and add regular intervals of high intensity. But it's not just the high-calorie burn itself that's drawing these crowds — it's also the amazing music. As it turns out, pedaling to the beat of the song is quite a party!
According to the American Council on Exercise, music and exercise are a power couple. Music not only reduces feelings of fatigue when you're working out, but it also improves motor coordination and motivates you to work harder. That's why many cycle instructors select music with a strong beat to power students through a tough climb and upbeat, recognizable pop songs to drive a faster cadence.
If you are cycling outside, think twice before popping in your headphones and going for a ride. Since there are other obstacles, people and vehicles that come into play, hearing what’s around you is important for your safety.
Improve Your Brain Function
Even though your brain is not a muscle, it can still benefit greatly by doing regular aerobic exercise like cycling. A January 2019 study published in the journal Neurology found that aerobic exercise training improves cognition, regardless of age. This is a rather impressive finding, as previous studies in this area focused solely on the elderly. As it turns out, everyone's brain benefits from cardio — and this benefit goes far beyond any number on the scale.
Beyond that, your brain on exercise can have incredible mood-boosting benefits. This is because when you start working out, your brain releases endorphins and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that make you feel happy and full of pleasure after a workout. Perhaps this is why many people joke that exercise is their favorite "therapist," as the very act of working out helps combat feelings of depression, stress and anxiety.
- American Heart Association: “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids”
- Harvard Health Publishing: The Top 5 Benefits of Cycling”
- American Council on Exercise: “8 Reasons HIIT Workouts Are So Effective”
- ProCon.org: “MET Values for 800+ Activities”
- American Council on Exercise: “Music and Exercise: How Music Affects Exercise Motivation”
- Neurology: “Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Cognition in Younger Adults”
- American Council on Exercise: “Your Brain on Exercise: The Neuroscience Behind a Good Workout”