Biking is great exercise that minimally stresses the joints, due to low impact. Any warnings here were far overblown. Just be sensible if something bothers you.
Many people aim to make their workouts fun and social. They join classes, work with trainers, seek out variety, go outside, and exercise with friends. Spinning and biking outdoors remain popular in part because they fulfill these desires.
This outlook can hurt you though. You may pursue types of exercise that keep you engaged but harm the joints. They may work poorly and inefficiently compared with the alternatives. Many tend to exercise longer as opposed to harder when focusing on pleasure. They waste time and get little results for their health and fitness.
Cycling, also called biking or bicycling, involves using bikes for exercise, sport, and recreation. Bicycles allow us to cover far more distance for the same effort yet remain powered by us alone.
Although most find them enjoyable to use and helpful as a mode of transportation, they fail to match what the human body evolved to perform. The intricate relationship between our working body parts gets disrupted. We developed to our present forms as humans during times when all but the most basic of motions dictated life.
We walked, ran, pushed, pulled, squatted, carried things, and so on. Modern inventions and tasks such as using strength training machines, cardio devices, and even activities such as a golf swing or a baseball throw fail to match the expectations and capabilities of our joints and muscles.
This article applies both to spinning in gyms and biking outside. More risks come about from the latter though. Consider these reasons to avoid cycling.
Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.
– Mark Twain
- It causes knee problems and other imbalances.
Chat with any group of bikers and you will discover that at least some complain about knee issues. Many persist through them though, often relying on drugs to shroud the pain or only taking time off when things feel at their worst. They consider every reason except the flawed nature of the activity itself.
They suggest you avoid overtraining through too many hills, too long a distance, too many sessions, and so on. They recommend a good warm-up with perhaps some stretching of key muscles prior to a ride. You need a strengthening program to improve the integrity of your joints. Learn better form, get a proper fitting, know your settings and how to operate your gears, or spend most of your time spinning at a higher cadence. Lose weight. These solutions all avoid the true problem.
When cycling, you will notice that you feel it in the quads and glutes but not in the hamstrings. This occurs because a bike forces you to adopt a position that demands too much movement at the knees without enough extension at the hips. This leads to too much quad involvement and places greater shearing forces on the knees. This is the same reason why the front squat works poorly for strength training.
When biking, the hamstrings work at a short and weak length. The components for contraction overlap excessively. This stops them from generating much tension.
During normal lower body activities, both the quads and hamstrings contract together. This supports the knee from the front and the back along with other thigh and hip muscles supporting them laterally. These activities also encourage compression that our joints can handle safely for heavier or explosive movements. Cycling does not allow these elements.
In addition to poor hamstrings involvement, pedaling prevents much plantarflexion. This fails to stimulate the calves as much. Less engagement here also indirectly provides less protection for the knees due to a greater likelihood for buckling.
You also have less freedom of movement while on a bike, so it lacks the flexibility to allow you to adjust your position on the fly.
Due to the light loads and higher speeds when cycling, the stress the knees bear may not have an immediate effect. Over time though, it could harm them. The sheer repetition will take its toll sooner or later.
- It lacks impact.
Proponents tout this as an advantage. You need to consider the long run though. Impact forces that come through weight-bearing exercise stimulate connective tissue growth and maintenance. Those that rely on biking and swimming have lower densities versus those that experience at least some impact. This predisposes them to injury.
- It promotes a poor posture.
When exerting effort on a bike, you tend to hunch over, preventing a good posture. Cyclists will round their spines to make their bodies aerodynamic. This will harm the lower back while failing to train it and develop the endurance of other postural, deep muscles as well.
The many adjustments possible on a bike can improve this situation somewhat but can never eliminate it. Those that fail to understand and change their settings at all will fare even worse.
- The seats can harm the sexual regions.
The seats put pressure on the perineum between the genital and anal areas, harming the delicate arteries. This can cause sexual dysfunction, urination problems, and numbness. These result from reduced blood flow and nerve signaling for men and women alike.
- It involves less muscle versus other cardio.
During a sprint or when running the stairs, you vigorously pump the arms. This brings in the core and upper body, making them full-body exercises. The more muscle you can involve at once, the better the exercise functions as cardio.
Biking involves the upper body only to stabilize. It fails to work these muscles to any great degree. This lesser muscle involvement reduces the cardio stimulus and also creates too much lactate buildup in the legs. This causes the burn in the muscles to prevent you from going on as opposed to getting out-of-breath, the true goal of cardio.
- It occurs continuously.
Natural cardio activities involve slight breaks. These reprieves give some time to clear out fatigue by-products and bring in nutrients. Biking provides little opportunity for this process unless you rest completely.
- Parts can malfunction.
Machines can break. An unexpected burst of speed or uneven revolution from this could lead to a crash.
When using your own body, you can feel yourself approaching your limits more easily, reducing the chance of injury.
- Outdoors biking is unstable.
Bikes are unbalanced and rely on your skill to stay upright. This adds another layer of danger. You may collide with objects, and this grows especially dangerous when riding near motor vehicles.
When you traverse on your own two feet, you have far more control.
- There are more opportunities for catastrophes.
Rough terrain and bad weather when outside bring unpredictability, which can increase the likelihood for a serious injury.
For any activity, you need to weigh the pros and cons. You may enjoy it but also should admit any shortcomings. For biking, does the recreational value outweigh the problems? Only you can make that choice.
Many will compare biking to long distance running. This comparison makes cycling appear favorable, but this is a straw man argument. Running for far too long carries many risks indeed. This ignores though that you could fulfill the need for cardio with intervals through sprinting and walking instead.
I recommend keeping exercise productive and safe over prioritizing enjoyment. Put in the minimum amount of time and work hard enough to achieve your best results. Stay safe by using good form and choosing the right exercises.
Seek entertainment outside of your workouts. We all have an innate need for exercise encoded into our biology. Doing it for its own sake, regardless of the activity, will grow rewarding if you form it into a habit. Taking exercise seriously will improve your quality of life more so than the fleeting thrill of a pleasant but poor workout choice. You can easily replace a bike ride with a hike outdoors that uses your body naturally.