The benefits of cycling include boosting cardiovascular fitness, helping with weight loss, improving balance and coordination, strengthening joints, and enhancing mental health.
You can get many of the same benefits from cycling both indoors and outdoors, whether you're on a stationary bike or a mobile one.
To bike safely, it's important to start slow, light yourself up when biking on busy streets, and always wear a helmet.
This article was medically reviewed by Jessica R. Zarndt, DO, FAAFP, an assistant team physician for UCLA Athletics and a professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
Going for a bike ride is good exercise, and it can be as easy or as difficult as you make it. Plus, if you can't get outside, you can even find many of the same health benefits on a stationary bike indoors.
Here are five major health benefits of cycling and how to bike safely.
Cycling boosts cardiovascular fitness
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. Cycling is one way to get aerobic exercise — also known as cardio — which gets your heart and lungs working.
For example, a large 2017 study looked at the benefits of "active commuting" and found that cycling to work was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and death. In fact, the health benefits of cycling to work may be even greater than the benefits of walking to work.
Cycling can help you lose weight
Moderate or vigorous aerobic activity like cycling can help you lose weight. A 2019 research review found that indoor cycling, when combined with healthy eating practices, was recommended to help people lose weight, reduce blood pressure, and improve lipid profile.
The amount of calories cycling burns depends on how hard you're working. For example, a 185-pound person can burn the following number of calories per hour:
Walking (at a 15-minute-per-mile pace): 400 calories burned
Hiking: 532 calories burned
Moderate stationary cycling: 622 calories burned
Light outdoor bicycling (at a 12 to 13.9 mph pace): 710 calories burned
Mountain biking or BMX: 754 calories burned
Running: (at a 11.5-minute-per-mile pace): 800 calories burned
Moderate outdoor bicycling (at a 14-15.9 mph pace): 888 calories burned
Vigorous stationary cycling: 932 calories burned
Vigorous outdoor bicycling (at a 16 to 19 mph pace): 1,066 calories burned
Cycling is easy on the joints
Because cycling is a low-impact activity, it's easy on the joints — even easier than walking.
"When we walk, and when our foot hits the ground, because of gravity, we hit with two to four times our body weight," says Curtis Cramblett, a licensed physical therapist and certified cycling coach, strength and conditioning coach, and bike fitting educator.
On a bike, there is still some force on the joints, depending on how hard you're pushing on the pedals, but cycling does not deliver the compressive force that walking does, Cramblett says. This makes it suitable for people who may have injuries, such as a knee or hip replacement, or a lower back problem.
"Because it's low impact and because you're sitting on a saddle, it can be as gentle as you like," Cramblett says.
Cycling improves balance and coordination
A small 2013 study found that bicycling can improve balance and even help prevent falls for older adults. However, these benefits likely apply only to cycling outdoors, and not for indoor stationary cycling.
"When you're trying to keep a bike upright, you're working on balance," Cramblett says. That's why cycling is often recommended for people with neurological disorders to train balance and coordination. In fact, a small 2015 study found that stationary cycling can improve balance in stroke patients.
"Once you learn to ride a bike, you can always do it. It really brings back some of the coordination that we learned as a kid around balance," Cramblett says.
Cycling offers mental health benefits
It is well-proven that exercise — such as cycling — can improve cognitive functioning, reduce depression, and enhance overall well-being.
Plus, when you ride a bike outdoors, it may enhance these benefits. A 2013 research review found that exercising in natural environments provides greater mental health benefits than indoor exercise does.
The most important benefit of cycling might be the same one you appreciated as a kid. "Think about the first couple of times you were on a bike: the freedom, the joy, the play, the smile, the laughter — there's an emotion that comes into that old memory," Cramblett says.
How to bike safely
For beginners, Cramblett recommends starting out slow — maybe once or twice a week for 15 or 20 minutes.
"Then you can work your way up, giving your tissues, your tendons, your muscles, your joints, an opportunity to get used to the activity," he says. People often jump into activities too fast and do too much, but that can cause injury and make it a chore rather than something you enjoy, he says.
Comfort is also important. If the position of your saddle or handlebars is off, "it puts undue stress on your joints," Cramblett says. Getting your bike professionally fitted can prevent pain and injury, and this applies to both outdoor bikes and stationary bikes.
If you're cycling outdoors, here's how to do it safely:
Light yourself up, no matter what time of day. Cramblett cautions against beginners riding at night, but he recommends "lighting yourself up like a Christmas tree," even in broad daylight. Blinking lights raise your visibility, so cars can see you from farther away, Cramblett says.
Ride defensively. It's safest to assume that a car near you doesn't see you and might turn in front of you. "Over-communicate if you're on the bike, and use your hand signals," Cramblett says.
Pick your streets. If you're new to cycling, avoid streets with heavy traffic and no bike lanes. "Now, more and more places have green lanes that are nice and wide, and cars can see there's a bike," Cramblett says.
Learn the ropes. The League of American Bicyclists offers classes on how to ride safely with traffic, as well as how to improve skills.
Always wear a helmet. You might think you don't need a helmet if you're just going on a leisurely ride, but a large 2017 study found that helmets reduced the risk of serious head injury by 69%.
Whether you head outdoors or use a stationary bike at home, you should do what works for you. Sticking to an exercise regimen is much easier if it's fun, Cramblett says. "The most important thing is that it's something that puts a smile on your face and that you're willing to come back and do tomorrow."
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