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Do you have to be super fit to get the benefits of cycling?

Spring is almost here and it is time to get the old bicycle out!

Over 13.5 million Canadians commuted to work in 2011*. Many of them drove cars to work.

* Statistics marked with an Asterisk are from Statistics Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, they took various forms of transportation including cars, public transit, ferries and bicycles. Public transit users are made up of about 12% of the population which jumped up 1% from the 2006 census when it was 11% of the Canadian population.

Cycling accounts for just over 200,000 commuters in Canada. Victoria, B.C. has the most cyclists of all the major cities in Canada. Clearly Canadians are increasingly warming up to the idea of cycling as an alternative to driving to work. And why shouldn't they, there is documented evidence that cycling can improve your physical health, your mental health as well as helping the environment and providing a relatively cheap and easy way to get to work.

Given all the benefits it makes you wonder if out-of-shape people would be more likely to cycle to work if they were physically fit?

After all, it stands to reason people who are out-of-shape and not proud of their bodies might be loathe to bicycle to work if they feel they are not physically up to the challenge. It thus becomes a bit of a Catch-22 that if a person is overweight, how can they lose weight via bicycling if they feel defeated before they have even started.

First, let's see what cycling in Toronto looks like on a statistical level. There has been a small increase in cycling in Toronto over a 10 year period (1999 to 2009) of about 6% of Torontonians who commute to work via bicycle. Particularly from 2001 to 2006, the number of Torontonians cycling to work increased by 30%. The biggest increase was in female riders and the demographic that increased the most was female riders aged 45 - 54 and male riders aged 55 - 64. This demographic might be due to a higher number of middle-aged / older Torontonians getting into cycling for its health benefits - possibly with other unknown factors contributing to the rise.

Though cycling is on the rise in Toronto, the city still lags behind all major cities in Canada. 1.2% of commuters in Toronto cycled to work in 2011*. When compared to Victoria's 5.6% of commuters who bicycle to work, Toronto's 1.2% seems tiny in comparison. Clearly Toronto has lots of work to do if Toronto is to become a more bicycle friendly city.

Granted Victoria only has a population of 78,000 people (2006 census) while Toronto has 2.5 million. So Toronto has 30,000 cyclists who commute to work to Victoria's approx. 4,368 cyclists who commute to work.

Next, let's find out what kinds of health benefits we can experience with cycling.

Cycling can improve your general health and fitness, everyone know that, but lets take a moment to bust a myth about pollution inhalation. Cycling to work reduces the amount of pollution you intake on your commute. Contrary to popular belief, cyclists inhale less pollution than motorists do. You would think it would be the opposite, but according to 'An Overview of Cycling Research', a document compiled by Dr. Chris Cavacuiti which examines a plethora of studies on the topic, cyclists inhale less pollution than motorists do. So even though motorists are in the "safety" of the cars, they still inhale more fine and ultrafine particulate matter than cyclists do - possible because motorists are often stuck in traffic for longer periods of time, and they may also be inhaling fumes from their own vehicle. The exact cause of why motorists inhale more pollution has not been determined as of yet, but what is known is that they are definitely inhaling more of it.

On the exercise level studies have shown that active transportation - exercise that is part of the daily routine of getting to work as opposed to exercise that is structured activity (i.e. going to the gym) is more sustainable over time. This means people get into the routine of bicycling to work and this routine becomes customary, whereas people who visit the gym sometimes lose focus and stop going to the gym.

Many gym-goers also use stationary bicycles while at the gym, but the health benefits of cycling inside an air conditioned gym vs cycling in the great outdoors isn't so much a matter of which is better from a health perspective, but which is better for people to stay motivated to keep doing it. Cyclists who cycle outdoors report that they love cycling and would never willingly give it up. Gym goers on stationary bicycles are more ambivalent on the topic and report becoming "bored easily".

Mental health can be improved by cycling as well. A meta-analysis discovered that exercise can be used as a treatment for depression. Exercise can also contribute to reducing the risk of sleep disorders and eating disorders. There are other benefits to cycling including increased sense of community, decreased congestion, and reducing the effects of Alzheimer's and dementia.

Cycling is also a great way to build endurance - which has a variety of side benefits for many other activities (including activities in bed).

There are many benefits to cycling but unfortunately there are also risks. The risks include death and injuries and such incidents are reported in the news media. However fatality rates for cyclists are much lower in Canada than pedestrians and drivers/passengers. So you are more likely to get hit by a car and killed while walking across the street than you are to be killed while cycling.

Over a 20 year period between 1988 and 2008 fatality rates have decreased in general for cyclists. Overall, when taking a risk benefit analysis on cycling, most people find that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

So do you need to have a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1985 to start cycling or bicycle to work? Obviously not. You certainly do not need to be Arnold to start to get the benefits of cycling. The best thing to do is to just start - and if it is possible to bicycle to work where you live, why not do so? Of course it may be hard at first, your lungs will burn and so will your thighs, but keep at it and it will get easier over time.

Before long you will be reaping the health benefits of cycling and you will be wishing you had started cycling to work sooner.

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