Cycling for health
John F Kennedy once said nothing compares to the simple pleasures of a bike ride. But the former US president isn't the only celebrity to have waxed lyrical about the joys of pedal power: "When the spirits are low, just mount a bicycle and take a spin without thought on anything but the ride you are taking," wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Indeed, cycling is thought to be great for your spirits, especially when you’re riding through inspiring countryside on a fine day. But there are also other compelling reasons to get on your bike.
The impact cycling has on the environment is a perfect example. According to a survey by the Department for Transport, 23 percent of short trips under a mile are made by car, and overall 69 percent of all car journeys are less than five miles long. But if more people cycled those short journeys instead of jumping into their cars, the result would be reduced fuel emissions and therefore cleaner air, not to mention the possible impact that may have on reversing global warming (and, let's not forget, smaller petrol bills too).
Body and mind benefits
Where health and wellbeing is concerned, cycling is also good for you in more ways than one. First of all, cycling can help you meet the recommended physical activity guidelines, which recommend 150 minutes of moderate-activity aerobic activity a week for adults in the UK.
It can fit into your normal daily routine more than many other forms of exercise because not only does it give you a great work-out, but it also doubles up as a mode of transport. In fact, cycling has been highlighted by government health experts as an important means of fighting obesity – you can, for example, burn three to five calories a minute by cycling at a slow-to-moderate pace or up to 500 calories an hour if you cycle vigorously.
According to the British Heart Foundation, cycling at least 20 miles a week reduces your risk of heart disease to less than half that of someone who doesn't cycle or take any other exercise. The charity Cycling UK also claims cycling to work is linked with a 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with commuting by car or public transport.
Cycling helps to lower blood pressure as well as your resting heart rate. It is also thought to protect against strokes and diabetes. British Cycling - the national governing body for cycling in Britain – says it keeps you young too, as studies show regular cyclists enjoy the general health of someone approximately 10 years younger.
Going for a bike ride is also an ideal alternative to activities such as running for people with knee, hip or back problems, since cycling is a low-impact exercise (meaning it's easier on the bones and joints than high-impact activities like jogging). There again if you do mountain biking – or ‘out of the saddle’ riding – it’s a full-body exercise that not only works the muscles in your legs and hips but also your arms, chest, abs and improves your core stability.
Cycling is also believed to help improve your mental health, with studies suggesting it may help reduce stress levels and improve your general sense of wellbeing (according to British Cycling, many cyclists report cycling regularly reduces their perceived levels of stress and promotes relaxation). It may also help improve your balance, strength and co-ordination, which can reduce your risk for falls and other injuries.
Taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement may be useful if you cycle or are active on a regular basis, especially one that provides good levels of magnesium, iron and B vitamins for energy. And if you tend to go for strenuous rides, there’s evidence that drinking sour cherry juice may help prevent post-exercise muscle pain by helping your muscles to recover (i).
How to stay safe
Staying safe on the road is, however, one of the main reasons why many people don't cycle – despite government health experts advising that the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of having an accident. Indeed, according to Cycling UK, the health benefits of cycling outweigh the injury risks by between 13:1 and 415:1, according to studies, with the most often quoted figure being 20:1 (life years gained due to the benefits of cycling versus the life years lost through injuries).
Whether you’re new to cycling or have been riding for years, here are some safety guidelines to help keep you safe:
Make sure your bike is well maintained and check your gears, brakes, chain, tyres, lights and reflectors are always in good working order
If you or your child is new to cycling, correct training is essential – find a course or instructor at Cycling UK (many schools and local councils also offer cycling courses for children).
It’s also essential to familiarise yourself with the Highway Code, which explains the rules for cyclists as well as giving other essential safety information (find details at gov.uk).
In addition to formal cycle training, teach children to learn about road safety by regularly warning them about how accidents happen, and make sure their bike is properly maintained at all times.
Use special cycle routes, paths and lanes where available. If your children are cycling to school, find a safe route at www.saferoutestoschool.org.uk.
It also goes without saying that wearing a safety helmet is essential too, for both adults and children. Reflective clothing is also a good idea, especially if you or your child will be riding at night.
Finally, never use mobile phones or personal stereos while cycling, and encourage your children to do the same.
Five top cycle trails
There's no shortage of well-organised cycle routes in the UK that all the family can enjoy – here are a few to inspire you and get you started:
Usk Reservoir, Wales
A circuit of the picturesque Usk Reservoir in the Brecon Beacons, this green (easy) route takes you over forest roads as well as tarmac, with one good road climb to get your heart pumping.
More info: GPS Routes UK
South Downs Way, Hampshire, West and East Sussex
Stretching all the way from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, the South Downs Way follows the old routes and droveways through the South Downs National Park. If you're up for it, the entire trail takes three days to cycle.
More info: National Trails
Ae Forest, Dumfries
This green (easy) trail runs up the Ae valley to a beautiful point overlooking the Water of Ae, then back down the valley, crossing the river with inspiring views throughout – and only one hill, which makes it ideal for all ages and abilities.
More info: Forestry Commission Scotland
A circular route that links the coastal resort town of Ballycastle to the Giant's Causeway using the spectacular Causeway Coastal Route and returning via Bushmills and the country roads of North Antrim.
More info: Cycle NI
Kielder Water and Forest Park, Northumberland
Choose from a range of cycle routes – or, if you're feeling energetic, ride the entire trail – that wind around Kielder Water and take in the park's scenic views, abundant wildlife and even contemporary art and architecture.
Distance: up to 42km
More info: Kielder Water & Forest Park
Connolly. DA, McHugh. MP, Padilla-Zakour. , et al. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006;40:679-83; discussion 683. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16790484