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Cycling and your health

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Cycling (bike riding) is a great way to help improve your physical and mental health.
  • It can help reduce your risk of heart disease and decrease your stress and anxiety levels.
  • Your sleep habits can improve by bike riding.
  • Cycling suits almost any age and fitness level.
  • Cycling is an environmentally friendly way to commute — and can save you money.
  • Stay safe while cycling. Follow the road rules and wear a helmet and bright clothing.

What is cycling?

Cycling or bike riding is the sport of riding a bicycle. It is a low impact exercise that can improve your mental and physical health.

Riding a bike is a low-cost way to get around and is environmentally friendly. You can get to know your neighbourhood in a different way by riding around your local streets.

Cycling allows you to avoid high traffic areas and reduce your reliance on public transport. If you do not have access to a car or cannot drive, riding is a handy way to travel.

A bicycle is not only cheaper to buy than a car, but needs no petrol and has few maintenance bills.

What are the health benefits of cycling?

Heart health — Regular bike riding helps to reduce your risk of heart disease and related health conditions such as high blood pressure and stroke. It does this by strengthening your heart muscle and lowering your resting pulse rate. Riding on a regular basis can also reduce levels of fat in your blood and help you to manage your weight.

Muscle strength — Regular riding helps build your muscles and makes you stronger and fitter. Cycling uses several muscle groups at the same time. Your legs to move the pedals, your core to keep you balanced and your arms to hold up your body and steer the bike.

Balance — Bike riding helps to improve your balance and coordination that declines as you age. Plus, it reduces pain from stiff joints.

Mental health — Bike riding can boost your mental health and has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety levels. It helps you to sleep better and decreases your risk of getting depression. Cycling triggers the release of natural endorphins — known as the 'feel-good chemicals — which improve your mood and sense of wellbeing.

Low impact — Cycling is an example of low-impact exercise. Less weight or force bears down on your joints while you cycle. Because of this, people with arthritis and other joint conditions may find biking riding beneficial.

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

Who is cycling best suited to?

Cycling is an enjoyable way to keep physically active. People of most ages and fitness levels can take part.

Bike riding can be a fun way for children to stay healthy and keep them entertained. Kids under the age of 10 do not have full peripheral vision and may miss cars or other hazards in their path. For this reason, adults should supervise children when riding a bicycle.

If you do not feel safe riding on busy roads, find a park or area which has bike-only lanes away from cars. Stationary exercise bikes are a great alternative to road bikes. You get many of the benefits of cycling, without the risks of riding on the road.

Can I cycle while pregnant?

If you are pregnant, you should avoid cycling outdoors due to a risk of falling. Instead, try cycling on a stationary exercise bike. You will get many of the physical and mental benefits of regular riding with fewer risks.

Is it safe to cycle at night?

While it is safe to cycle at night or in low lighting, there are some safety tips you can follow.

  1. Attach 2 strong lights to your bike. One at the front and one at the back. Each light should shine at least 200 meters ahead or behind your bike.
  2. Stay visible. Wear bright clothing and stick reflective tape to your bike and helmet.
  3. Check to make sure your bike is working well before you take off, including your breaks and lights.
  4. Before you cycle a certain route at night, ride it in the day so you are familiar with the path and any obstacles.
  5. Cycle in a group for greater visibility and general safety. More people also mean more eyes to watch out for hazards.
  6. Tell someone you are going for a ride and when to expect you home. Share your route with them. You could do this by sharing your live location using a mobile phone app.

How do I start cycling safely?

You should always wear a properly fitted helmet that meets Australian safety standards. This will help reduce the chance of head and brain injuries if you have an accident.

When buying a bike, get it sized by trained staff. You should be able to place your feet flat on the ground when sitting on the bike seat. This is especially important for children. Do not buy a bike that is too big for your child in the hope they will use it for longer.

Follow all the cycling road rules. Wear bright-coloured clothes or clothing with reflective strips to make you are seen by other road users.

Try to stick to routes that avoid major roads. Look for routes that have bike lanes and bike paths through parks and shared roads.

Even on a designated bike path, always watch for hazards, approaching cyclists and cars crossing into the bike lane. Give way to people walking. Always leave space between yourself and other cyclists and cars. Look for drivers opening their car doors.

If you are trying to cross a road, make eye contact with car drivers before you take off. This ensures that they have seen you.

What equipment do I need for cycling outdoors?

In addition to your bike, you will need a Standards-approved and properly fitted bicycle helmet. It is the law to always wear a helmet when riding to help prevent serious head injury in an accident.

Carry a water bottle so you can drink and stay hydrated while riding. Be sun safe and wear sunscreen and a long sleeve top. Keep a small first aid kit with you, in case you or another cyclist has a fall during your ride. A puncture kit may also come in handy. Be sure to carry some identification in case of an accident.

How do I avoid injury while cycling?

As well as the essential safety equipment — a helmet, lights and high-visibility clothing —, wear riding gloves to help prevent chaffing, blisters or cuts on your hands. A pair of glasses or sunglasses can protect your eyes from the sun, dust, or any low-hanging branches.

Before you start riding, if you share your bike with someone else or if you tend to experience overuse injuries, consider asking a professional to set your bike up. Get them to show you how to adjust your bike. Many bike shops have experts who can fit your saddle and handlebar height for your height and body proportions.

Other common injuries and ways to prevent them include:

  • Knee pain: is the most common cycling injury and is also known as 'cyclist's knee'. Adjust your saddle height, or get a professional bike fitting, to prevent knee pain developing.
  • Neck and back pain: is a result of sitting in the same position for too long. Avoid strain by stretching before each ride, and adjusting your handlebar height so you are not hunched over.
  • Wrist and forearm pain: 'cyclist's palsy' (damage to nerves in the hand from long-distance cycling) and carpel tunnel syndrome can also be avoided by adjusting your handlebar height so your wrists are always above the handlebar. Ensure that your elbows are not in a locked position while you ride but bent slightly.
  • Saddle soreness: is particularly common in men. This is pain in the genital or rectal areas caused by restricted blood flow that can occur while cycling long distances without a break. Try to find a wider or padded seat, or padded cycling shorts, and take regular rest breaks.

If you experience an injury from cycling that includes significant bleeding, pain, numbness or weakness, see your doctor. Manage mild injuries or pain with rest and pain medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

How do I stay motivated while cycling?

Keep up cycling with these tips:

  1. Make it social. Join a cycling group or go riding with a friend.
  2. Set fitness goals. This will remind you of why you started cycling and motivate you to keep going if your interest declines.
  3. Mix up your routes. Change the scenery to keep things interesting.
  4. Track your ride with a mobile phone app. When you reach a new personal best, reward yourself and set new goals.
  5. Incorporate cycling into your daily routine. Ride to the shops, work or to meet friends.

Where can I find cycling classes, clubs or coaches?

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2021


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