Cycling has a variety of health benefits and is definitely a good thing to do for your body. However, the research has shown that it does not help create strong bones. In fact, it may even decrease your bone density, depending on the amount of cycling training you do. So, if your solo form of exercise is cycling, you may end up with weaker bones than someone who is not even active! The good news is that you can counteract this with some cross training and strength training.
Why isn’t cycling good for my bones?
This is a lot of research out there on bone health and a fair amount on cycling and bone health. There are several reasons that have been consistently given in the research for cyclists having lower than normal bone densities.
Cycling is non-weight bearing. The primary reason for cyclists having low bone density is that it is a non-weight bearing activity. High level cycling in particular has been shown to have negative effects on bone strength because of the amount of time cyclists spend training and riding. You are spending a lot of time seated, with no compression forces on your spine and pelvis. Even though it may feel like you are pedaling hard at times, the forces you are putting into the pedals are also not distributed in a way that puts significant strain on your bones, which is needed for bone growth.
Recovery time also non-weight bearing. In addition, necessary recovery time from hard cycling usually involves additional non-weight bearing activity of sitting or lying down. Most cyclists reported avoiding weight bearing activities during recovery periods as a way to help enhance recovery from training.
Cyclists generally have lower body mass. Cyclists also generally are lighter, and low body mass is also a risk factor for osteoporosis and osteopenia. This especially applies to women, who in general have lover body mass, as well as to cyclists, who are consistently striving to obtain a low body weight in order to improve performance.
Cyclist have an increased risk of fracture due to crashes or falls. Whether you compete or just ride for fitness and fun, chances are at some point you will take a fall, or be involved in a crash. This applies to any level cyclist, whether you ride solo, with friends, in groups, or compete in rallies and races.
Research on cycling experience and bone density risks shows...
If you are a road cyclist, especially if you train hard or have been training for multiple years, you are more likely to develop osteopenia or osteoporosis. This puts you at a higher risk for fractures; a risk that continues to go up with age and training. More masters were classified as osteoporotic compared to age-matched non-athletes, and the percentage of these increased significantly after a seven-year period.(1) So, for those of you in the category (which may be the majority of people reading this), you are not only more likely to be at risk, but the risk factor also gets higher as you get older and complete more years of cycling training.
In 2012 there was an extensive review of 31 studies on the subject(2). The findings were that adult road cyclists who train regularly have significantly low bone mineral density in key regions. This was found to be true when comparing the cyclists to control populations of both athletes in other sports as well as non-athletes. Areas of the lumbar spine, pelvic and hip regions, and femoral neck were all key areas found to have lower values in road cyclists than the controls.
Included in this review were only a few studies involving amateur cyclists or low level cyclists. Differences in bone mass were not found between the cyclists and controls when comparing with low level cyclists. However, studies that examined elite cyclists, or those training at high levels for numerous years, consistently found low bone mineral density in the elite and experienced cyclists.
This further supports that the level of training and years of training are strong factors in you as a cyclist being at risk for low bone density.
Junior Cyclists. Most of the differences in bone health were considering those older than 17 years of age. It is worth saying that the observation is cycling in the early years of life does not negatively affect the bones. However, it doesn’t positively affect the bones either. Participation in other sports has been shown to positively affect bone growth more than cycling does.
Translation: allow juniors to train hard and train often, but make sure they are getting some cross training as well, to create maximum bone growth.
Differences found with different cycling disciplines.
Road cycling at a competitive level might be more detrimental for bone health than mountain biking and recreational forms of cycling. This is due to all the reasons stated previously. Long hours on the bike, non-weight bearing. No impact forces, low forces in general while pedaling, and lots of time off your feet trying to recover from training.
Mountain bikers were found to have higher bone mineral density than road cyclists. One reason given for this was the vibrations endured off road. Depending on the level of mountain biking, the increased short durations of high force to get over obstacles may also help out.
Sprint trained cyclists have stronger bones than distance trained cyclists. This makes sense because of the large forces they generate for short periods of time. The leg muscles are creating high forces, which in turn puts high forces on the bones they are connected to. The high forces for short durations are similar to the demands of weightlifting. However, keep in mind that as a non-weight bearing activity, as hard as you might go as a sprinter, compression forces on the spine are still not present.
Triathletes and Duathletes: the combination of cycling and running counteracts the negative effects on bone mass that cycling alone may result in. Duathlon and triathlon training do not have the same negative effects as cycling training alone.
Ok…I may be at risk for low bone mass, what should I do about it?
Strength training and putting impact forces on your bones is the number one thing you can actively do to promote bone heath and bone density.
We all want strong bones that are resistant to breaking;
especially as we age. This is even more important for a cyclist. Let’s face it, a crash or fall at some point in your cycling life is likely to happen. Stacking the odds in your favor by including activities to maintain and stimulate bone strong is your best line of defense against a fracture if you do happen to hit the ground at a greater impact than you would like.
In the next blog we will cover:
- Why strength training improves bone health
- What the research shows.
- What type of strength training to include in your program if you are concerned about your bone health.
Part 2 of this blog is posted HERE
1. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2011
Longitudinal Changes in Bone Mineral Density in Male Master Cyclists and Nonathletes. Nichols, Jeanne F1; Rauh, Mitchell
2. Cycling and bone health: a systematic review
Hugo Olmedillas, Alejandro González-Agüero Luis A Moreno, José A Casajus and Germán Vicente-Rodríguez BMC Medicine2012