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Feb 26, 2011

Cycling Health and Fitness

People follow three paths to good health: doctor, diet, and exercise. Our path to the doctor involves the greatest expense, $1,035 billion in 1996, or almost 1/7th of the Gross National Product. Over 60% of these visits involved medication, and there were over 70 million surgeries (source CDC). However, there would be less expense, trauma, and tragedy if we prevented many of these medical problems. According to the American Medical Association, 60% of Americans are physically inactive. According to U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, the number of people at risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke is increasing, and 50% of Americans are overweight. He said that improved nutrition along with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week could reduce cardiovascular illnesses and deaths by 50% and colorectal cancer by 40% (source CNN, June 11, 1999).

Unfortunately, those who decide to respond to health alerts tend to go overboard on nutrition and to adopt the wrong exercises. Rather than exotic nutrients, we need a diet consisting mainly of grains, fruits, and vegetables, with reduced amounts of meat and cheese. Rather than weight­lifting, TV "aerobics," and ab crunching, we need true aerobic exercises that help strengthen the heart, such as fast walking, cycling, jogging, swimming, rollerblading, skating, and cross­country skiing. The best exercise to change our sedentary habits is the one we can and will do nearly every day.

Bicycling has several advantages over other exercises:
  1. Cycling exercises the heart better than walking without the pounding of jogging.
  2. One can ride a bicycle almost anywhere, at any time of the year, and at low cost.
  3. Little or no time has to be lost, as bike travel can be used to get to work, perform errands, or enjoy the outdoors.
  4. Commuting by bike reduces pollution that causes asthma and bronchitis. A commuting cyclist is also less exposed to air pollution than a commuting motorist.
On the down side, cycling does involve some risk of injury which has been greatly exaggerated by fearmongers. Cycling actually has similar risks to traveling by automobile. The British Medical Association has estimated that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by twenty to one.

One very interesting question is how much aerobic exercise should one get every day? Some medical authorities recommend as little as 20 minutes a day, three times a week, while others recommend 2,000 kCal, which would be at least four times that amount. Why the great difference? Well, most authorities recognize the more exercise the better up to some undetermined point, but many are afraid that if they expect too much, people won't exercise at all. Another reason for lowering the recommendation was due to the damage caused by jogging, a problem cycling does not share. I am afraid that those setting very low requirements are giving people the mistaken impression that they don't need any more exercise than their usual, basically sedentary activity.

How much exercise do I recommend? I find that 45 minutes of cycling six days a week (about 2,000 kCal) keeps me feeling good, but not great, two hours per day keeps me very strong and controls my weight, and six hours a day on my bicycle trips makes me feel like superman after several weeks. We might say that lower amounts of exercise improve one's health and higher amounts improve one's fitness. I would recommend a minumum of 45 minutes a day and as much addition cycling as time permits. The time spent cycling will not be wasted; in addition to having a good ride, the cyclist will be more productive during the remaining time and will live longer as well.

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