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Once the main mode of personal transport for many Indians, cycling has gone on to become a popular fitness activity, even a tool for adventure sports. Stands to reasons, as cycling comes as naturally to us as swimming - common knowledge dictates that one doesn’t forget either skill once they have learnt it, no matter how long they have been away from it.

In India, one can still see a large section of the population using old-school bicycles as a mode of transport, for going to school or to work and coming back. Equally, there is a section of people in the country who have adopted the modern cycle varieties with their added benefits of gears and being lightweight. These new bikes are designed differently based on whether you use them on the track, road or trail.

Cycling is also a low-impact exercise which can be enjoyed by people of all age groups, as it remains an excellent cardiovascular activity and its static version, a favourite piece of equipment in the gym. It also doesn’t require you to take a break from working out when you’re travelling; bicycles can be a great way to explore a new city as well!

Both cycling and running are great cardiovascular activities, besides being accessible to a lot of people all over the world. Running, however, has a higher impact on the body as it is tougher on the joints and can lead to running injuries. Cycling is a great way to boost metabolism and lose weight.

Read more: Foods to increase metabolism

  1. Cycling types
  2. Benefits of cycling
  3. Disadvantages and side effects of cycling
  4. Precautions and safety tips
  5. Takeaway

As a fitness-oriented lifestyle activity, cycling has become the basis of specific workouts like spinning. Essentially, however, the cycle itself has been modified to become stationary and can be found in every gymnasium or fitness centre around.

While outdoor cycles are specially designed for specific tasks such as riding on the road, on a cycling track as well as on trails, they also have the added benefit of gears which make difficult riding situations, like uphill cycling, easier. Indoor, stationary bikes are still designed to feel like a road bike, and you can modify the resistance according to your preferences and strength levels.

Indoor and outdoor cycling differ in the environment they are used in; while an indoor spin class will be a group activity that forces you to change your cycling tempo according to the session, outdoor cycling requires adjusting to different terrains and external conditions like the weather. Long-distance cycling enthusiasts can also sign up for a range of competitive and non-competitive activities in big cities across India.

Even though cycling is a low-impact aerobic activity, it can provide you with a solid workout, leaving you out of breath after an intense ride. Here are some of the known benefits of cycling:

  • Weight loss: Cycling is an effective way to burn calories and a good exercise for weight loss. Cycling for more than 20 minutes also helps to increase the metabolism, which means that you continue to burn calories well after you have stopped.
    Compared with running, cycling burns fewer calories. However, it is a low-intensity workout and may be better suited to people who are older, at high-risk of workout injuries or are living with obesity.
  • Boosts muscle growth: The lower-body muscles are constantly at work while cycling, thus making a positive impact on the legs, glutes, back as well as the abdominal muscles.
  • Fights disease: Cycling is known to improve heart as well as lung health, with some studies suggesting it could even reduce the chances of heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes and digestive disorders.
  • Great for beginners: The two different styles of cycling also ensure that it is not a daunting activity. Even if you have never ridden a cycle in your life, you can always hop onto a stationary one at the gym and not worry about falling off.
    Additionally, training wheels aren't just for kids. If you're a grownup who wants to learn how to ride a bicycle in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or even older, try bicycle training wheels for adults: the training wheels will reduce your fear of falling, and the cycling will give your heart and lungs a great workout. The added benefit: this will allow you to go outside for several minutes daily. Spending time outdoors is a key tenet of a good self-care regime as it promotes happiness. 
  • Reduces mental health risk: Cycling is also known to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression through its physical demands. The activity releases adrenaline and endorphins, thereby easing your stress levels. It is also known to boost the body’s resistance to degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Environment-friendly: Even as a mode of transport while going to work, cycling is a great way to promote a healthy lifestyle, not only as an exercise but being kinder to the environment.
  • Boosts body balance: Those who have trouble with coordination between the left and right side of their bodies, have trouble running or climbing stairs or have other such difficulties, cycling can help build a greater level of balance in the body. It is also known to improve your overall posture.
  • Cost-effective: Sure, cycling, much like any lifestyle choice or activity, can be as expensive as you want it to be. However, the activity itself is one of the cheapest ways to get fit. All it needs is the initial investment of the bicycle, which doesn’t have to be super expensive.
  • Improves bone health: Not only does it help build muscles, but cycling also increases bone density and doesn’t harm the joints because it is not a weight-bearing exercise.
  • Community-building: Cycling is also a great social sport, where a group can converge and decide to ride to a new destination, or one can form a community in their local spinning group. Building new friendships and connections is also therapeutic as it promotes overall well-being.

While cycling remains an extremely effective and viable exercise, it still comes with its set of drawbacks:

  • Saddle sores: Cycling gets the heart pumping, for sure. But spending hours in the saddle can increase the chances of chafing, a skin rash and folliculitis. Thankfully, there are simple ways to reduce the risks, such as wearing workout clothes that can wick away the sweat quickly and making sure that the bicycle seat is at the right height. Some cyclists wear padded biking shorts or even two cycling shorts - one on top of the other - to protect their inner thighs from chafing.
  • Pain and numbness in hips: While leg pain as a result of cycling is a sign that your muscles are working, pain and numbness in the hips from spending time in the saddle can be an unfortunate side-effect of cycling. Thankfully, there's a way to fix this: many long-distance cyclists use bum saddles padded for extra cushioning as well as padded biking shorts.
  • Accidents: Roads in India are infamous for accidents. India has the highest number of road traffic accidents in the world, and the lack of proper cycling lanes or infrastructure makes the activity a dangerous proposition. Falling off a bicycle can also cause long-term, debilitating injuries.
  • Chronic conditions: Cycling isn’t advised for people suffering from osteoporosis, which is known to weaken bones. Those suffering from heart disease are also not recommended to cycle.
  • Pollution: Urban cities in India are some of the most polluted in the world today, making outdoor cycling a difficult activity to pursue. While exercises that cause you to inhale more outdoor pollution - this includes brisk walking, running and cycling outdoors - are bad for anyone, they are especially tough on people who have a respiratory illness like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Weather conditions: Inclement weather, extreme heat or heavy rain makes cycling outdoors extremely difficult, sapping you of energy quicker than usual, besides making it dangerous due to the slippery surfaces because of rain.
  • Sexual disorders: Studies have shown that spending long hours in the saddle of a bicycle can put a lot of pressure on the perineum - the area between your anus and sex organs. This, in turn, may reduce the blood supply and nerve conduction to your vagina or penis, causing numbness.
    The risk of erectile dysfunction and/or infertility is also somewhat higher in men who cycle for several hours daily, but experts say this risk can be mitigated by taking the proper precautions.
    An obvious fix for this is to pick a comfortable bike seat: this means a wider seat with extra cushioning. Adjusting the angle of your seat (not tilted upwards) and the height of the handlebars (increasing their height will help you sit more upright) may also help.

Read more: Homoeopathy treatments for skin rashes

Despite the drawbacks, cycling can be extremely beneficial for health and enjoyable. But before you begin your cycling journey - on the road - do exercise the following precautions to keep yourself safe:

  • Follow traffic rules: Traffic in this part of the world can be pretty unruly, which makes it all the more important for a cyclist to be always on guard against other passing vehicles. Follow traffic rules and use hand signals while turning, besides investing in lights, bells and reflective strips for the bike.
  • Wear safety gear: You’re sharing the road with faster moving vehicles like cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses, as well as the stray rickshaw or even animal-pulled carts. Wearing a helmet must be second nature for a cyclist, along with gloves and other protective equipment for the knees and elbows. And of course, padded cycling shorts for better comfort.
  • Avoid loose-fitting clothes: Fitted clothes for cyclists are designed for a reason, as loose clothes can get stuck in the spoke of the wheels or the chain of the bike.
  • Wear weather-appropriate clothing: Lighter clothing fabric for summer as well as protection from the rain or cold must be part of your gear while cycling.
  • Apply sunscreen: Protection from the sun is just as important for a cyclist as it is for a runner, and regular application of sunscreen as well as wearing sunglasses must be a regular practice.
    Pro tip: It's a myth that people with darker skin don't get sunburn. If you notice symptoms like a burning sensation on the skin, blisters, itching or pain in the area exposed to the sun, then seek treatment.
  • Wear pollution masks: Air pollution can be difficult to negotiate for cyclists especially in traffic, with polluting vehicles all around. Invest in a good pollution mask to keep yourself away from toxic fumes from other vehicles. 
  • Stay hydrated: Modern bicycles usually come with holders for water bottles. Keep one handy for regular hydration as cycling can be quite physically demanding.
    Pro tip: If you get muscle cramps while cycling, then dehydration is a likely cause. Make sure you get enough water and electrolyte to recover quickly and reduce the chances of recurrence.
  • Check your posture: Once you've fitted your bike with a wider seat (remember, narrow bike seats put more pressure on the perineum), make sure you adjust the height of the seat. An easy way to do this is to check the position of your leg while paddling - at the lowest part of the paddle, your leg should be only slightly bent. Now adjust the height of the handlebars - increase their height if you want to be more upright while riding.
    Pro tip: If you have a stiff neck and neck pain as a result of cycling, then bad posture on the bike is the most likely cause. Take proper rest and the next time you ride, fix the height of your seat and handlebars to see if that makes a difference. If not, visit your doctor for the appropriate therapy.

Like with running, cycling also remains a niche albeit a fun activity that is constantly gaining in popularity as a fitness regimen. The advantages are multiple: building fitness and endurance levels while also keeping diseases at bay, and acting as a great exercise for weight loss and boosting strength in the legs.

Its positive effects on mental health are well-known, and it is a great way to socialise with like-minded people interested in cycling for health and general fitness. An economical mode of transport (no money for fuel), cycling is also eco-friendly and kinder to the environment.

Running long distances can be dreary as well as challenging for newbies as well as those who only want to pursue it to become healthier. Cycling, on the other hand, is a little more accessible and adds an element of fun to your daily schedule.

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References

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  2. Better health channel. Department of Health and Human Services [internet]. State government of Victoria; Cycling - health benefits
  3. Chekroud, SR et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2018 Sep; 5(9):739-746.
  4. Wasse LK et al. The influence of vigorous running and cycling exercise on hunger perceptions and plasma acylated ghrelin concentrations in lean young men. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Jan;38(1):1-6. PMID: 23368821.
  5. Goel R. Modelling of road traffic fatalities in India. Accid Anal Prev. 2018 Mar; 112: 105–115. PMID: 29329015.
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