Nothing improves my mood more than a long bike ride in the country, so I say this next part with reservations (and sadness). Cycling has its dark side – possibly the most significant being that it can wreak havoc on your posture.
I am not saying don't cycle. There are myriad physical and mental health benefits: improved cardiovascular and musculoskeletal strength and the mental and physical health benefits of exercising outdoors. (Not to mention the convenience, cost effectiveness and freedom associated with using a bike as one's method of transportation.) But if you understand the negatives to watch out for, you can put together a well-rounded fitness routine that will mitigate any cycling-related damages.
The negatives of cycling
1. In essence, cycling is sitting and we all sit way too much.
Now, obviously this is slight hyperbole. Cycling and sitting are not one and the same; cycling strengthens your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, whereas sitting destroys both.
The problem is that cycling and sitting cause similar muscle imbalances; a rounded-forward posture, a "stuck" and rigid upper back and tight hips (particularly hip flexors). I am a great example. As a trainer, I don't sit as much as the average person – my job is fairly active – but because of the amount of hours I cycle, if I am not mindful, I still round my shoulders forward slightly.
2. Cycling also requires your legs to move in a repetitive motion, which can cause overuse injuries. The hips and knees are most commonly affected.
3. Cycling is non-weight-bearing, which is ideal if you have osteoarthritis, but not ideal if you are exercising with the intent of strengthening your bones to prevent or manage osteoporosis.
Seven steps to mitigate the negative effects of cycling
I suggest implementing these even if you are not an avid cyclist. You most likely sit and, as mentioned above, sitting and cycling usually contribute to similar imbalances.
1. At the gym, aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of posture exercises to chest-strengthening exercises. I count any exercise that strengthens the upper back or rotator cuff muscles, or stretches the chest, as a "posture" exercise. Examples of chest-strengthening exercises include bench presses, push-ups or chest flys.
This is a personal favourite posture stretch: Lie on a foam roller with the roller running lengthwise along your spine, arms by your side. Alternate bringing one arm up behind your head toward the floor behind you. Keep the arm straight. As your right arm goes back, turn your head to the left. Then switch sides.
2. Be mindful of your posture throughout your day. Pick a "mindfulness" colour; when you see that colour stand or sit tall and suction your head back in space.
3. Stretch out your legs – particularly your hip flexors – after every ride and throughout the day.
Hip-flexor stretch: Step your right leg forward into a lunge; reach your left arm diagonally over your body so you lean gently to the right. Bend your left knee slightly and squeeze your left bum muscle – feel a stretch in the front of the left hip. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with the left leg forward.
4. Weave motion into your day so you are not simply sitting while cycling, sitting at work and then sitting in front of the TV at night: Set an alarm to get up regularly; pace on conference calls; walk to your colleague's desk rather than calling; go for a walk at lunch.
5. Complement your cycling with activities that require multidirectional movements – think tennis, yoga or dance. Multidirectional dynamic activities are weight bearing, which will help build bone density, and adding variety to your routine will help ward off boredom and the dreaded "fitness plateau."
6. Strength train. Weight training increases bone density and training your legs can lead to greater power, strength and endurance on the bike and can also help counteract cycling-related overuse injuries – such as patellofemoral syndrome; iliotibial band syndrome and patellar tendinitis – and muscle imbalances. Prioritize multijoint exercises such as squats, deadlifts and bent-over rows and core exercises such as planks, bird dogs and wood chops.
7. Make sure your bike is properly set up; have an expert assess your seat and handle-bar height. If you spin inside, make sure that you always have resistance on your fly wheel, especially when spinning quickly. Stay in control and prioritize proper form – quality over quantity!
If cycling is the mode of activity that allows you to be active on a regular basis, then absolutely cycle. Any exercise is better than no exercise. All I am saying is, a well-rounded routine that includes the appropriate stretches and strength training is far superior to just cycling.