Health and fitness | 8 MIN READ

Want to live longer? Ride a bicycle.

Children are encouraged to go outside and ride their bikes so they can get their bodies moving and breathe in some fresh air. Doctors tell us to ride a bike to combat a variety of health issues and ailments. Riding a bicycle is one of those things that seems to fit a lot of bills: health, entertainment, and transportation, but a bicycle is so much more than a fun way to get around or merely a toy. It can become a rewarding routine that might ultimately change your life.

Many of the health benefits that come with riding a bicycle, including improved heart health and weight loss, are common knowledge. In addition to the well known physical benefits, bicycling has also been scientifically proven to yield benefits to those suffering from emotional and mental health issues. In some cases, patients saw better results from taking up cycling than from psychotherapy sessions. But what you might not know is that the actual activity of riding a bicycle can do so much more for our bodies than we ever thought possible. The exciting reality is that just a few hours of pedaling per week can have a profoundly positive effect on your body’s immune system and life expectancy.

What research is suggesting

Recent cycling-related studies have been churning out all kinds of exciting information, and the results are all pointing to the same thing: people who ride a bike are generally in better overall health and tend to age in a healthier, more graceful manner. Just 30 minutes of bicycling exercise a day can have an overwhelmingly positive effect on your immune system. And while this news graced the medical health and wellness community years ago, it’s worth repeating.

Better health at a cellular level

Stress reduction is a good way of improving the immune system, and cycling does exactly that. Recently, it has been discovered that the effects of cycling can be traced to the cellular level. A small study out of the UK discovered that riding a bike can affect the body in a surprisingly cellular way: the researchers decided to study their participants’ T-cells - the thymus gland cells that aid in fighting infections. A blood draw and analysis is required to determine T-cell count and other related data.

The participants of this study included 125 cyclists between the ages of 55 and 79. After the participants’ blood draws and analyses were complete, the T-cell levels of the participants were compared to two other groups of individuals:

  • Adults their age who did not exercise regularly
  • Adults between the ages of 20 and 36

The comparisons yielded fascinating results:

  • body fat of the older cyclists was as low as that of a young adult in their 20’s
  • cyclists’ immune systems were functioning like they were in their 20’s
  • cyclists’ T-cell count levels were the same as that of an adult in their 20’s

The researchers also discovered that the cyclists’ thymus glands were unusual. The thymus gland typically begins to shrink with age, but in endurance athletes, it showed no change in size. In fact, it was consistent with the size of the thymus found in someone in their 20’s. This could explain why the athletes’ T-cell counts were so high and why their bodies still function similarly to adults in their 20’s! Study author, Professor Janet Lord, told the BBC, “The immune system declines by about 2-3 percent a year from our 20’s, which is why older adults are more susceptible to infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer. Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70 or 80-year-old, they have added protection against these issues.”

Improving your immune system by adopting a weekly cycling routine might also mean something else - you might be able to slow the effects of aging and increase your life expectancy.

Bicycling for longevity

A study published in the International Journal of Sports in 2011 confirmed the suspicion that cycling could increase one’s lifespan, but also suggested that the minimum exercise duration of 30 minutes might not be sufficient in preventing unhealthy weight gain. An elite group of endurance athletes were referenced when selecting the study population: the Tour de France cyclists.

A total of 1,229 riders from all over the world were included in the study and a set of specific individual requirements were identified. Cyclists’ birth and death dates were compared to that of the general population, and the study concluded that the longevity of the athletes was much greater. Riders lived 81.5 years versus the general population’s 73.5 years - that’s 17% higher.

It’s never too late to start making changes that have the potential to improve the quality of your life, especially if those changes could even prolong your life. You don’t have to race the Tour de France to see the benefits that result from riding a bicycle; you just need to be consistent. In fact, you can start to see and feel the benefits of a consistent cycling routine after just a month or two in the saddle.

Bicycling for HIIT exercise

Different types of exercise affect the body in different ways. Some exercises are more effective in forming the bulky muscles that bodybuilders work so hard at, whereas others result in longer, leaner muscles. One study shows that high intensity aerobic interval training (HIIT) goes one step further and provides anti-aging benefits. HIIT involves quick bursts of high-intensity activity, interlaced with recovery periods of less intense activity.

A study published in Cell Metabolism concluded that HIIT exercises, such as bicycling, can affect aging on a cellular level. Two age groups were included in the study: one group of people aged 18 through 30 and another of people between the ages of 65 and 80. Participants were given one of three HIIT exercise routines and were expected to follow the assigned routine for three months. Whether or not HIIT had any effect on aging was determined through the collection and analysis of muscle biopsies, taken before and after the three-month long exercise plan.

Results from the muscle biopsies concluded that HIIT exercises, such as bicycling, can affect aging on a cellular level by boosting muscle mitochondrial activity. “Only HIIT and combined training improved aerobic capacity and skeletal muscle mitochondrial respiration.” Mitochondria are commonly referred to as the “power plants” of the cell because they produce and quickly distribute much needed energy. The fact that HIIT improves mitochondrial activity is important because it means that the body is producing energy and recovering more efficiently.

Bicycling to reduce stress

Corticosteroid, the hormone that is released when you become stressed, can actually suppress the effectiveness of the immune system. That means that stress has the strong potential to weaken the immune system. It’s important to know this because a recently published study in the Lancet: Psychiatry suggests that bicycling just might be one of the most commonly relied upon forms of exercise to relieve stress.

The study includes data from over one million participants who live in the US. Data was provided from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System surveys in 2011, 2013, and 2015 . The research team’s goal was to determine what association exists between physical activity and mental health. They discovered that cycling was the most popular stress-busting exercise, ranking above any other aerobic or gym activity. They also found that, given a list of various activities, riding a bike came in as the second most popular stress-battling activity, behind team sports involvement by only 0.7 percent!

So if you find that you’re often getting sick as a result of a weakened immune system from stress, a hop into the bike saddle might be a good idea. While the participants who exercised most often reported workout durations of 45 minutes and frequencies of three to five times a week it’s acceptable to start with a shorter duration just a few times a week, particularly if you don’t currently have a fitness routine in place. A ten minute roll through the neighborhood on your bike is a great way to start a new habit of riding, and you just might find that you’re feeling less stressed and getting sick less often.

Bicycling for life

All of this basically means you should be riding a bicycle. More specifically, the odds that you will have a healthier immune system, live a longer life, and be much healthier throughout your lifetime increase significantly when compared to your peers who don’t ride. By simply adding a few bike rides into your week, you could find that the duration of your life isn’t the only thing improving - the overall quality of your life might end up reaching new highs!

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