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The mind-body benefits of cycling

By Hal Royer, M.D., Family medicine physician

Western North Carolina is such a beautiful place to explore and as an avid cyclist I could not ask for a better place to call home. The thing I love about cycling is the many ways it improves both your physical and mental health. Whether I am out for a solo ride or with a group of friends, when I am on my bike, I know I am doing something good for my body.

I will walk you through the many mind-body benefits of cycling.

It boosts your cardiovascular endurance. Biking is a form of cardio and gets your heart pumping and blood flowing, which is a great way to keep your lungs healthy.

It helps you maintain a healthy weight. If you are trying to lose a few pounds, cycling is a great form of exercise. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease and many forms of cancer.

Maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce your risk of serious chronic diseases and help you feel better overall.

It helps you maintain your balance. With age comes an increased risk of falling. Getting on a bike can help you maintain proprioception, which is the awareness of your body’s position and movements. This can help you have better balance and reduce your risk of falls.

It improves your sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is important to your overall health and regular exercise like cycling can help you have a better night’s sleep, so you have more energy for all of your daily activities.

It strengthens your muscles. Biking is a great workout, especially for lower body muscles like your quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes. Keeping your bicycle upright helps work your core and upper body. And the more muscle tissue you have, the more calories your body burns at rest.

It’s low-impact on your joints. Cycling is a great low-impact cardiovascular exercise, which is important If you have arthritis or joint injuries. Other exercises, like running or high-intensity interval training requires more weight-bearing movements, which can increase your risk of injury.

It supports your immune system. Exercise has been shown to support immune system health. It also slows the release of the body’s stress hormones, which may reduce your risk of Illness.

It connects you with nature. Research shows that spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve mood, increase empathy and cooperation, improve memory, increase feelings of well- being and a sense of meaning in life, improve attention, and reduce your risk of psychiatric disorders.

It’s a social activity. Going on a bike ride with friends or catching a spin class together is a great way to stay connected. Keeping connected with others is more important than ever and bonding over a shared hobby can boost your connection to loved ones.

It gives you time to process your thoughts. Cycling allows us time to sort through what’s on our mind, something we often don’t give ourselves time to do.

It reduces stress. Exercise like cycling causes your body to release feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins, which can help relieve stress. When you take your workout outdoors, you’ll also trigger the release of serotonin, which helps manage stress hormones.

It supports your brain health. One study found that cycling increased blood flow to the brain during and after exercise.

You can cycle anywhere. The options are almost limitless for biking. If the weather is not good, you can take a spin class or ride a stationary bike at home. This doesn’t have to be expensive; you can find a good-quality bicycle on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or at a yard sale.

What to know if you’re new to cycling

If cycling is something you're interested in starting, I want you to first talk to your primary care provider to ensure this new form of exercise is right for you. If you have osteoporosis, consider riding a more stable tricycle to reduce your risk of falls.

Staying safe is the top priority so you should also learn the rules of the road and how to maintain your bike. Consider visiting a local bike shop to learn what equipment and clothing you should use on your rides, as well as how to position your bike seat.

Always wear a helmet when cycling outdoors, even if you’re going for a short ride. Make sure you are well hydrated and don’t forget to apply sunscreen before you hit the road.

Start slowly by cycling around an empty parking lot or low-traffic bike trail rather than on the open road. Finally, enjoy yourself. Cycling is so good for the soul and significantly improves your quality of life. It can be an activity you’ll enjoy for years to come.

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