Risks and Benefits of Cycling – What Does the Research Say?

Introduction

Despite cycling being one of the largest participant activities in the world, little research has been undertaken on the health risks and benefits of cycling. What research has been done tells us that in the USA in 2011 there were over one million non-fatal cyclist injuries and 675 deaths reported. Major contributors to the deaths were lack of helmet use and use of alcohol. Of fatally-injured cyclists, 25% had blood alcohol levels at or above 0.08%, 67-85% were not wearing helmets, and 38% were riding between the hours of 6pm and midnight. While we know cycling has the potential for both serious traumatic and overuse injuries, the health benefits of our sport far outweigh these risks. Here is an American study that describes both the health risks and benefits of cycling.

The Research

5,818 cyclists completed an online survey that examined their demographics, cycling behaviours, injuries and medical conditions. 5,600 were over the age of 18 years and 4,792 met the study’s definition of being a cyclist – cycling on average more than twice a week for recreation or competition. The average age was 43.7±11.8 years. (range 18-85 years) and they rode on average 9.2 hours per week and had been cycling for 19.6 years. 81.7% were males and 18.3% females. 94.6% rode road bikes and 60.1% raced regularly.

The Results

Importantly, the survey participants reported that, after starting cycling, there were reductions in:

  1. obesity (76.2% of participants)
  2. cholesterol (66.1%)
  3. hypertension (50%)
  4. asthma (58.7%)
  5. smoking (86%)
  6. substance abuse (76%)
  7. There were decreased reports of all mental health diseases reported.

However, the results also showed that the cyclists in the survey reported a dramatic 310% increase in urologic disease with 62.3% of the cyclists reporting issues related to prostate enlargement, erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer.

The majority of injuries were taken care of by the cyclist with no effect on their ability to continue with their job or activities of daily living. There were also increases in musculoskeletal complaints with hand pain and numbness increasing by 420% since starting cycling. Abrasions were the most common injury (53%). The most injured body parts were the pelvis/hip (15.5%), knee (14.8%), and shoulder (13.6%). Interestingly, 60% of injuries occurred on the road of which 25% occurred during competition, mainly during crits (51.3%). Out of competition injuries were the result of colliding with an obstacle (26%), another rider (20%), cars (13%), with 19% due to issues related to train tracks, ice and gravel. At least 7.0% reported the use of performance-enhancing drugs with the use increasing as the level of competitor increased from recreational to professional.

 The So What?

While the results of the online survey might be questioned because it relied on self-reporting from the cyclists, the outcomes from this large survey strongly suggest the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the health risks. Cyclists report reduced obesity, cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and hypertension. The study showed only 1.6% of the cyclists has coronary artery disease while the normal population has figures of 7%.

The 310% increase in urologic diseases is expected given that cycling is a recognised but rarely discussed risk factor for uro-genital health. Bike saddles design, wearing knicks with padding as well as ensuring good bike fit can help reduce the pressure on the area between the genitals and anus. The high incidence of hand pain and numbness can be reduced by wearing gloves with a padded area on the palm as can padded handlebars and shifting hand positions regularly.

Bottom line is to keep riding but ensure you take every opportunity to ride safe by wearing a helmet and padding in all the right spots, have a good bike fit, and ride safe in terms of when and where you ride and who you ride with.

For a detailed discussion based on research evidence, check out three chapters in my book The Masters Athlete:

  1. Chapter 12 (Injury prevention and amanagemnt for the masters athlete)
  2. Chapter 13 (Overtraining in the masters athlete)
  3. Chapter 14 (Staying healthy and illness-free)

They are available as pdf’s too.

 Source: Greve, M. and others (2014). Health conditions and injury patterns in avid US cyclists. International SportMed Journal, 15(3): 245-254.