Bicycling can help you outmaneuver weight gain and glide into good health.
by Eric Schneider
For many, bicycling brings to mind leisurely rides down quiet lanes, an idyllic pastime that is associated with open suburban byways and laid-back rural life. While that image is certainly true to an extent, more Americans—particularly those in cities—are placing their feet on pedals and hitting the road for recreation as well as health benefits.
Douglas Meyer, 40, a marketing consultant and avid bicyclist in Saratoga Springs, New York, found what he says was an unexpected benefit: increased mental acuity. “Riding my bike, even if just on my short commute to and from my office, helps me clear my mind and relax, even on the toughest of days,” Meyer says.
The US Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey shows that bicycle commuting in America rose by 43% between 2000 and 2008, signaling a shift from cycling as primarily a means of recreation. Instead, more Americans are embracing biking as a daily routine that provides both transportation and fitness.
“Cycling has multiple benefits,” says enthusiast Liz Applegate, PhD, director of sports nutrition at University of California—Davis, new home of the US Bicycling Hall of Fame (www.usbhof.
com). “When you raise your heart rate, and as your muscles are demanding more oxygen to fuel pushing the pedals around, your body adapts, and you build cardiovascular fitness.”
Driving Down Weight
Bicycling is also an excellent way to build muscle strength in your legs, as well as burn calories and control weight, adds Applegate, author of Eat Smart, Play Hard (Rodale). The average person who rides at a moderate pace for an hour, for example, can burn between 400 and 600 calories.
Applegate points to a recent study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (3/24/10), which found that women who exercise daily are better able to control their weight. Bicycling, Applegate says, can provide that regular exercise, and outdoor biking can burn even more calories when riding up hills or against the wind.
Bicycling may also help lower the risk for cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and other “ailments that come along with inactivity and aging,” Applegate says. Bicycling helps your
body process carbohydrates, allowing it to better balance insulin levels. “The likelihood that a person would develop type 2 diabetes is lower when they are routinely outside cycling and doing other activities,” she says. “You pretty much can’t go wrong with cycling.”
Running and other forms of exercise can benefit the body in many of the same ways, but bicycling has distinct advantages.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, cycling is actually associated with lower injury risk. This is in part because bike riders, unlike runners, don’t bear their full body weight and are less likely to strain their joints. These virtues also tie in directly to the overall accessibility of biking. As Applegate notes, “Especially if you’re somewhat overweight, you can go out and ride for 20 minutes; some people can’t go out and run for 20 minutes.”
For those bicycling regularly, there are added dietary considerations. “A person who is cycling will want to have more quality carbohydrates in their diet at every meal, so that means about three pieces of fruit a day and, optimally, five servings of vegetables,” Applegate recommends. She concedes that the heavy emphasis on vegetables may seem like much to consume in one day. But a little culinary creativity can help—adding chopped vegetables to a salad, for example, or grabbing a handful of raw veggies for a snack or with lunch.
Applegate says that you should always have adequate fuel stores before riding. If you wake up in the morning and decide to head out, for example, she recommends eating a bowl of cereal or a piece of fruit beforehand. “You’ve gone hours without eating during the night, and your body does need some fuel,” she says, “both for your brain and your muscles.”
Cyclists should also maintain adequate protein stores. “That means having protein at every meal,” says Applegate. Good sources of protein include lean meats, tofu, soy milk, dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry.
Whether you are new to the sport or haven’t been on a bike in years, it’s important not to rush into it, both literally and figuratively. Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists (www.bikeleague.org) in Washington DC, recommends visiting a local bike shop either to purchase a new bicycle or make sure that your trusty old one is in top shape.
Clarke also suggests easing into cycling by talking to local bikers and sizing up the neighborhood streets. And if you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable bicycling in traffic, he recommends looking into area cycling instructors, many of whom are certified and in the extensive LAB network. Even if you feel fairly confident about your ability, Clarke encourages people to review basic hand signals and reacquaint themselves with braking. “Get yourself back into the biking mindset,” he says. Male bicyclists may also want to investigate links raised between the sport and infertility. In fact, certain saddles have been designed specifically to stave off concerns about impotence.
When you feel confident in hitting the road, it’s best not to take on any long rides at first. “Don’t try anything too ambitious if you haven’t been on a bike for awhile,” suggests Clarke. Whether you’re planning on biking to a nearby park or trying out a route to your job, it’s best to set out during a relatively quiet time of the day, ideally during the weekend, and make a few dry runs to get the lay of the land, allowing yourself plenty of time so that you don’t feel rushed.
Safety, both for bicyclists and those around them, is key. A comprehensive guide to buying biking helmets can be found at the website for the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (www.bhsi.org/guide.htm). Right-of-way issues are straightforward. “When bicyclists are traveling with traffic, they have the same rights and responsibilities as those driving motor vehicles,” says Lois Chaplin, bicycle and pedestrian specialist at the Cornell Local Roads Program in Ithaca, New York.
Although issues among cyclists, automobiles and pedestrians can certainly arise,
Clarke notes that they can be minimized by maintaining awareness and respect when
out and about, a philosophy encapsulated by LAB’s Share the Road campaign (www.bikeleague.org/action/sharetheroad.php).
Bicycling can help you stay fit, get from point A to point B, and, hopefully, enjoy yourself in the process. What’s more, you’re also helping the environment. By opting for person-powered, two-wheeled transportation, you’re helping cut down on climate-changing carbon emissions and ever-frustrating traffic congestion. And you’re saving money by cutting down on your own fossil-fuel consumption.
To these ends, Applegate believes bicycling is fully appreciated as an endeavor that is both fun and functional. “Look at it as a practical way to go about your day,” she says, “while being good to the environment and your body at the same time.”
Back in May 2009, when Matthew Modine appeared in our special cancer issue,
we reported on Modine’s activism on behalf of pancreatic cancer research.
Allan Richter, Energy Times’ associate publisher and editor, recently
visited with Modine again to discuss the actor’s passion for bicycling.
Two Wheels and A Dream
By Allan Richter
Matthew Modine looked somber as he arrived by bicycle for a breakfast meeting in Manhattan. As he put a rugged black chain around his bike and a signpost, Modine explained that the previous day his mother-in-law was crossing the street when she was struck by a truck. Modine was thankful that she was recovering at home, but for the actor and environmental activist the incident was another reason to toss darts at the car industry.
“Look at automobile commercials,” Modine said over a breakfast of granola, yogurt and berries at Pastis, a French bistro in the meatpacking district. “Generally, the automobile is going down an empty road and mountains. You don’t see the driver so that you could imagine yourself in the driver’s seat. There’s a sort of faceless automobile racing through the streets, traveling at speeds that are insane and that hurt mother in laws.”
If Modine had his druthers, bicyclists would fill car-free streets, a vision he is trying to put into practice through his two-year-old Bicycle for a Day (www.bicycleforaday.org) non-profit organization. Modine launched BFAD by leading a flotilla of 14,000 bicyclists through lower Manhattan. Upping the stakes, he says he is trying to organize a Los Angeles event featuring more than one million bicyclists. “It’s a very complicated thing to try to do, but because of the Internet and social networking, it’s possible,” he says.
“When I moved to New York City and got my bicycle, I didn’t have to have insurance, I didn’t have to pay for parking, and it kept me fit because I didn’t have to go to a gym,” Modine recalls. “Riding from audition to audition helped me to learn and experience the city in a way that you wouldn’t if you were underground on a subway or in an automobile or taxicab getting from place to place. So moving to New York City and having a bicycle was a great form of liberation.”
The idea behind BFAD, of course, is to get budding bicyclists to extend the day into regular practice. “Janette [Sadik-Khan], the head of the Dept. of Transportation in New York, came up to me at an event and said, ‘Bicycle for a Day? What is that? It should be Bicycle for a Day—Everyday.’ We changed it.”
“If we consider the history of smoking and tobacco,” Modine says, “and the way that tobacco was sold to people, and if we look at automobiles, there’s an absolute parallel between the two marketing schemes. Probably cars will prove to be a greater destroyer of life on the planet.”
More people are riding bikes, Modine says, but the trend comes with a big asterisk that gives the actor pause. “The good news is the more people that ride bikes, the safer it becomes,” Modine says. “The bad news is that if bicyclists don’t behave it gives it a bad name. Bicyclists have the same rules as the automobile: They’re not supposed to go through red lights, they’re not supposed to go on sidewalks and where pedestrians are crossing, and there’s a lot of that that happens.”
If bicyclists don’t follow the rules of the road, he fears, municipalities will begin to mandate license plates and registrations and “impose laws that no bicyclist wants to see imposed.”
Modine acknowledges that he has attracted some unwelcome attention for not following one of biking’s unwritten rules—he does not wear a helmet. “Would a helmet have helped my mother in law when she got hit by a truck? Life is dangerous, and I think you should do everything you can to avoid getting hurt and getting into accidents. But I don’t think that a piece of Styrofoam, which doesn’t have much more integrity than a coffee cup, is going to protect my head if I get hit by a Con Edison truck,” he says firmly.
“The most important thing to do is to bicycle with awareness—defensively,” he adds. “You have to assume that everybody is trying to kill you, that somebody in a parked car is going to open a door, or that somebody is going to run out in the street. I like that because it makes you conscious, which is a great metaphor for bicycling—being conscious. How many times have you got behind the wheel of a car and drove for two hours and you weren’t even aware of it. You can’t do that on a bicycle.”
Perhaps because bicycling is a near daily habit for Modine, the 51-year-old does not dress the part. There is no fancy sleek racing shirt or Lycra shorts with reflective lightning bolts. Instead, Modine wears beige loafers, white slacks, and a red T-shirt beneath a pale-green striped long-sleeve henley.
Because the overcast sky threatens rain, Modine has chosen to ride his wife Cari’s Specialized Globe bike, equipped with fenders. Modine’s bicycle has no fenders, so the wheels can kick up puddles and any other wet debris you might find on city streets.
Modine’s first memory of loving biking came early. “My dad bought me this beautiful bicycle, like the one I rode up here on. I almost started crying. That was my first bike. It was so beautiful. But I wanted a Schwinn Stingray, you know with the banana seat, and he switched it out. I wanted the Corvette. Remember the Schwinn? It had a long frame. That was so cool. I had that bike forever,” he recounts.
“But the first real fantastic memory of riding a bike was after sneaking out of the house and going over to my girlfriend Anne’s house when I was 17 years old. It was Imperial Beach, California, so for the … ride home there was an offshore breeze. Just tasting the salt in the air, the quiet of 3 o’clock in the morning, the cool night air—that’s my ultimate bicycle experience.”