The Wiggins factor: Why cycling is a healthy option
- 27 July 2012
- From the section Health
Inspirational heroes at the peak of their physical fitness, boasting wardrobes of brightly coloured, skin-tight outfits. Not Spiderman or Superman - but elite cyclists.
Both groups have their fair share of imitators - though cycling has middle-aged men in lycra rather than children in costumes.
The triumph of Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France and the anticipated success in the velodrome at the Olympics are expected to increase the number of people taking to two wheels.
But cycling is already booming in the UK.
British Cycling said it had "never been in better health" after the publication of the latest statistics on the number of people taking to two-wheeled exercise.
But how good is cycling for our health, especially if we've not done that much exercise in a while?
Or would we be fitter and indeed safer pumping some iron in the gym or splashing around in the pool?
Take the number of calories burned: on the face of it, cycling is not off to a winning start.
"If you compare intense running with intense cycling, you will burn more calories running, as you are shifting your body mass," said Prof Jamie Timmons, from Loughborough University.
"However, it is like comparing apples and oranges."
The problem with simply comparing calories is that it assumes anyone can just get up and decide to exercise without any consequence.
Running may be better at shifting your body mass, but that body mass is also being thrust into the ground with every step, pounding your joints.
Prof Timmons says this is where cycling, as a low-impact sport, comes into its own, particularly when people are starting out.
Around 70% of body weight goes through the saddle and handlebars instead of through your ankles. And to put it politely, the bigger you are, the more important that will be.
"You will be able to do more intense cycling and avoid injuries, as you're not pounding into the ground," said Prof Timmons.
Dr Simon Kemp, from the Faculty for Sport and Exercise Medicine, is the type of cyclist who does legs of the Tour de France and readily clocks up 100-mile rides.
He says one of the advantages of cycling is that it offers more scope for improvement than other forms of exercise, such as swimming, which is "technically demanding to do it well".
"You can commute to work at 60% of your maximum heart rate, which is a relatively low-intensity activity, or at the top end you can do legs of the Tour de France."
Of course, any form of exercise has health benefits. But several studies have shown that cycling specifically does the trick.
A study of 30,640 people living in Copenhagen showed that people who did not cycle to work were 39% more likely to die during the 15-year study.
Dr Kemp said: "There's very strong evidence for people with very low initial physical fitness that it can result in significant reductions in cardiovascular-disease mortality."
There have also been studies around reducing body fat, better sleep and lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Cycling is also one of the easiest forms of exercise to fit into daily life.
If you swim, you have to head to the pool; a bit of weight-training probably needs a visit to the gym; but cycling to work can become part of a daily routine.
As a report by the now defunct Cycling England concluded: "Cycling is one of the most appropriate types of physical activity for the majority of the population as it can be easily incorporated into daily life, can be carried out at different intensities and has few side-effects."
Cycling is not without risks, but Dr Kemp cautions that these tend to be for the elite athletes.
Spending so much time in the saddle can lead to a loss of sensation in the genitals and there have been suggestions of lower sperm counts in elite male cyclists.
Being on the road, however, clearly runs the risk of an accident. This graphic of every death on every road in the UK between 1999 and 2010 showed cyclists had a higher casualty rate than pedestrians.
There is also a "twin peaks effect" with most being killed during the morning and evening rush hours.
Dr Kemp said the benefits outweighed the risks and that "from a public health perspective as a way to make the whole population more healthy, it is a very easy sell".
Prof Timmons said: "There's not a magic exercise out there. Do the exercise you enjoy the most and the exercise most likely to fit into your life."
But he warned: "You might look a bit silly in lycra."