The health benefits of cycling
Local sports-medicine specialist promotes cycling as a “low-impact activity”
As a sports-medicine specialist, Dr. Kirk Casey knows the physiological benefits of cycling. Pedaling a bicycle gets the heart pumping and lungs inflating with relatively light impact on hip, knee and ankle joints.
In Chico, where he’s lived for 14 years, he has put that knowledge into practice. Casey has become a regular rider on the local roads, integrating the bipedal activity into his workout regimen.
Casey, 53, rode a mountain bike occasionally while living in ski country—Michigan. Around 18 months ago, he started road-cycling with a friend in Davis, then decided to avail himself of the plentiful rides Chico has to offer. Swept up in the local bike culture, he gained a fresh appreciation of this form of exercise.
“I realized as I was getting older and older, and having to work harder in the gym, that biking was a kinder way on my body to keep me in better shape in the summer months for skiing in the winter,” Casey said. “Certainly there’s a lot of opportunity to ride here, a lot of different ride types. There’s so much topography here.
“I’m still more into [cycling on] the flats and not so much on Honey Run. But that gives me something to work toward.”
From a medical standpoint, Casey finds a variety of reasons to endorse cycling.
“There’s the cardiovascular fitness, obviously,” Casey said. “The thing I always talk about with my patients is the idea of cross-training. Swimming and biking are certainly much kinder on the body potentially than running.”
Now, before jumping to any conclusions, don’t assume Casey’s cyclist perspective means he’s dismissive of runners. He knows that a lot of Chicoans—patients included—get their exercise that way, and derive more benefits than they incur injuries. He simply advocates a balanced approach to fitness, particularly for runners developing hip or knee arthritis.
“I really try to encourage people to stay doing the kind of exercise that they want to do,” Casey explained. “Very rarely when my patients come to the office with issues do I tell them, ‘You can’t do what you want to do,’ unless there are fractures or something else serious. We have a discussion in which I ask, ‘Would you rather be more physically active for a longer period of your life by doing some cross-training, or perhaps pound upon an already existing arthritis and progress those problems at a faster rate than they would [progress] otherwise?’
“I consider cycling a low-impact activity,” Casey continued. “It’s not weight-bearing, so it’s even lower impact than weight training. That’s part of the reason triathlons became so in vogue. They weren’t just for ultra-athletes; there are a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are doing triathlons because they don’t want to beat up on their bodies by just doing running, for example. It’s a cross-training tool that’s extended into a sport.”
Low-impact doesn’t mean no-impact, though. At his Philadelphia Square office, nestled in a corner of the Argyll Medical building, Casey sees cyclists with several common conditions.
Ever heard of tennis elbow? Turns out, there’s a cycling equivalent: bike butt (my term, not his).
“When you first start out in cycling,” Casey explained, “a lot of it is a gradual process of getting used to the seat and seat angle, so you’re not getting hot-spots on your fanny.”
Steep positioning of the seat and handlebars in relation to the pedals also can lead to neck, back or knee pain. “If you’re having trouble, it’s actually beneficial to meet with someone at a local bike shop who can put your bike on a trainer, watch your cadence and adjust your ergo-nomic position,” Casey said.
Less common are soft-tissue ailments such as “snapping hip syndrome.”
More common for mountain bikers than road cyclists are abrasions and fractures from crashes. “You certainly can have those on road bikes as well,” Casey noted, “but usually you can see farther ahead and can protect yourself more on a road bike than you can on a mountain bike from rocks and unpredictable objects out there.”
Whichever type of bike you mount, make sure you’re wearing headgear. Casey preaches the importance of helmets with even more passion than extolling the virtues of cycling. In addition, he recommends padded shorts, gloves and handlebar grips for increased comfort; sunscreen for skin protection, and mirrors for added visibility.
“A big part of [injury]prevention that you can do for yourself is also self-awareness,” the cyclist doctor added, “having your skill level match what you’re trying to accomplish on a bicycle.”