The health and fitness movement has caught on, and people know maintaining fitness is part of a healthy and long-lived lifestyle. As a physician, focusing on health has always been a priority, and while there are many things people may do to keep fit, bicycling provides a fun and environmentally friendly way to get the body and mind moving in a positive direction.
I have been a bicycle commuter on a nearly daily basis, since I was in college in 1980. Back then, I rode a three-speed and, while it was a great way to get around, I also enjoyed the chance to clear my mind as I rolled along. As life went on, it became a way to not only improve my mental health but also burn calories and keep in shape. Among the many benefits, I have seen lots of wildlife, many beautiful sunsets and scenery.
The coldest day I biked was in Minneapolis at negative 18 degrees Fahrenheit (people routinely bike in the winter there) and the hottest day for me on the bike was in Houston, Texas, at 109 degrees. It makes for lots of great memories!
Bicycle commuting isn't for everyone, but short outings are easy to fit into most schedules. If you are looking to maintain your weight as part of your fitness routine, you must burn the same number of calories you consume. Biking can be part of this routine, and should be part of an overall daily health plan which may include walking, gym or other exercise to burn calories each day. If you schedule biking with friends and family, it may seem like much less "work" than time spent on a treadmill or elliptical. Here are some practical suggestions from a medical/bicycling perspective on how to get started and make the most of it.
Firstly, if you have any concerns about your health, always check with your healthcare provider before starting. Biking, like any exercise, is beneficial and fun for most, but the last thing you want to do is aggravate an old injury or cause yourself a new one. Start slowly and get your body used to the new exercise. Plan regular outings; if you don't, each time will be a painful reminder that your body still isn't used to the bike.
Secondly, always make sure that the bicycle fits you. If it doesn't fit you won't use it, and you are more likely to injure yourself while riding. If you're not sure how to find a bike that fits, visit a bicycle shop and have the staff help you. Not everyone has to ride hunched over like a Tour-de-France cyclist on a fancy bike with 18 gears, or ride a rugged mountain bike and jump off some small cliffs to have fun at it. You may find it is more comfortable to sit straight upright or partially upright, cruising on a one-speed or three-speed.
Third, inquire about accessories that customize the bike for your comfort. Things such as handlebar extenders allow you to sit up straighter, and padding on your handlebars help prevent sore wrists. Front shock-absorbers also save your body from bumps, potholes and uneven terrain you may encounter. Some people may also find that a recumbent bike is more comfortable for your back, as it allows you to recline slightly as you pedal. The key is comfortable and customizable — these two concepts will make your biking experience the best it can be, and protect you from bodily stress.
Similarly, get a seat that is comfortable- you don't need a tiny narrow seat to enjoy bicycling. Many people use a wider or padded seat, and you should always try them out first to see which is most comfortable. It is a very personal choice, and everyone's preference is different. Personally, I have found the Hobson easy seat is best for me.
For safety, stick to bike paths and roads with shoulders. Remember, bicycles are invisible to most drivers. There are lots of great options to ride locally and safely. Also, always wear a helmet when cycling. Protecting your head and neck always should be a priority, and your chances of being injured greatly decrease if you're wearing a helmet. If you do have a cycling accident and your helmet takes an impact, replace it immediately. Consider putting reflective tape or marking on your bicycle, in addition to the reflectors that come with it. Front and back taillights are also helpful and can make you more visible to motorized vehicles.
During and after biking, make sure you stay hydrated with a glucose containing fluid. After biking (or any exercise for that matter), don't use it as an excuse to overindulge in food treats. Hydrate yourself with some sugar water, and give yourself some time to relax and recover.
Biking is a great way to relax, burn calories, socialize. Get out and do it!