From the fresh air in your face to the opportunity to explore new routes, there’s a lot to love about cycling. It also comes with a list of health benefits that make cycling a great workout.
Any type of activity offers a boost to your body and brain, but unlike other types of aerobic exercise (like jogging or walking), you can turn cycling into a high-intensity workout without putting a lot of stress on your joints.
Many of the studies looking at how cycling affects health have found that cycling just a few days a week is enough to produce the following health benefits.
1. Cycling improves aerobic fitness (without stressing the joints)
Cardiovascular or aerobic activity is an important part of physical fitness. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines (PDF) call for everyone over 18 to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio each week (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio), noting that more is associated with more long-term health benefits. Cycling at any intensity is one way to incorporate this type of movement.
And if you’re someone who has hip, knee or ankle problems, or just wants to prevent them in the future, cycling is an excellent choice, according to Bianca Beldini, DPT, a physical therapist and US certified triathlon coach based in South Nyack. New York. “Cycling is considered low-impact, meaning it puts less stress on the joints of the lower extremities,” she says. “With proper bike setup, cycling can challenge a person’s entire system without excessive strain or adverse forces on the joints.”
2. Cycling builds core strength
When it comes to cycling, you may think of cardio rather than strength. But Beldini says outdoor riding can significantly challenge the abs and build core stability because you have to balance on the bike. This is especially true on rougher terrain, where you’ll need to change direction frequently to avoid obstacles.
“Balancing the body’s center of mass over the moving wheels requires the engagement of multiple muscles in the lower back, abdomen and hips,” she says. “Even light shifts while riding can fire up those muscles.”
And a stronger core can have a profound ripple effect on your health, adds Neil Anand, MD, director of spinal trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. A stronger core not only reduces your risk of back pain, he says, but it also helps prevent tension headaches and energy dips because you’re in better alignment throughout the day. “With more core strength and stability, you have more efficiency in your movements, no matter what activity you’re doing,” he says.
3. Cycling can improve bone health
Higher-impact activities like jumping and running put stress on the body, which can improve bone density, says Dr. Anand, which is an important part of healthy aging. But just because you prefer cycling doesn’t mean you’re missing out – especially if you ride off-road.
A previous study, for example, found that mountain biking can create enough ground impact to benefit bone strength. It also requires upper-body muscle engagement to maintain stability, and the combination of these factors may improve overall bone structure, the study’s researchers noted.
4. Cycling can help you sleep
If you struggle with sleep quality, adding an early evening commute may help, according to a research review published in December 2021 in Sleep Medicine Reviews.
Although the analysis looked at several types of aerobic exercise, cycling appeared to be the most beneficial, according to Dr. Melody Maugras, a cognitive neuropsychologist in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology at Concordia University in Montreal. She adds that stopping riding about two hours before bed seems to be the sweet spot.
“We’re not sure why cycling is so dominant for this. But we know that exercise like cycling raises body temperature quickly while you’re doing it, causing the body to balance the heat surge with cooling mechanisms,” she says. “This tends to create more efficient temperature regulation that relates to weather bedtime and can help you fall asleep faster and sleep better as a result.”
5. Cycling is good for cardiovascular health
Cycling, like other types of aerobic exercise, challenges the heart, lungs and muscular system in beneficial ways, according to Beldini. This increases cardiovascular function, including overall circulation and blood pressure, and better oxygen utilization.
Previous research has found that people who do regular cycling exercise have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than people who don’t cycle.
This also applies to indoor cycling. A review of research published in August 2019 in the journal Medicine suggest that combining indoor cycling with a healthy diet can improve aerobic capacity, blood pressure, lipid profile and body composition.
6. Cycling offers mental stimulation
Most exercise is good for mood and mental health; cycling is no exception.
A study published in February 2019 in PLoS One looked at 100 adults aged 50 to 83; about one-third were non-cyclists, another third (approximately) cycled at least three times a week, and the final third used electric bicycles, which are equipped with a motor to assist pedaling. During the 8 weeks of the study, participants were asked to maintain these cycling (or non-cycling) routines. Those who cycled at least three times a week – either on traditional bikes or electric bikes – showed significant improvements in mental health, cognitive function and overall perception of health and well-being compared to non-cyclists.
Different people may prefer one type of cycling over another, Beldini says. “For example, mountain biking is so technical and requires such concentration to navigate challenging terrain that you may find it helps with your overall concentration. In road cycling, the higher speeds and hill work can be exhilarating, leading to a greater sense of enjoyment.”
She recommends spending some time trying different types of riding and on different terrain to find out what you like best.