As the body grows old, it loses muscle mass, flexibility, bone density and becomes prone to exercise-related injuries. Cycling is an essential endurance exercise that helps solve such problems, especially among seniors.
It slows the aging process, improves physical and mental health, and reduces the chances of falls.
A study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity found that older cyclists had a walking efficiency similar to younger adults. This meant they didn’t use as much energy to cycle at a certain pace; hence could cycle faster without getting tired quickly.
If it’s been years since you hopped on a bike, it might be challenging to embark on the activity. We’ve prepared this cycling for seniors guide to help you understand how to prepare the body for the activity.
- Benefits of Cycling for Seniors
- How to Prepare the Body for Cycling
- Final Thoughts
Benefits of Cycling for Seniors
Cycling keeps your body healthy and reduces the likelihood of developing chronic ailments like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. It provides a whole lot of other benefits for seniors. Here are some of them:
Boosts Mental Health
Seniors are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia due to reduced memory, processing speed, and reasoning. These are called fluid cognitive abilities and mainly depend on the connections between brain neurons.
The connections diminish with age as gray matter volume declines. Morphometric and volumetric studies show an age-dependent decrease in gray and white matter volume in the temporal lobe, the prefrontal, and the cingulate cortex regions.
White matter connects different brain parts responsible for learning and mental processing, while gray matter controls memory, movement, and emotions.
Physical activity increases the volume of gray matter, particularly in patients with age-related cognitive diseases. Cycling particularly increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels of the brain that protect it from damage.
Low BDNF levels lead to reduced cognitive and memory functions in adults.
Another study published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research showed that people who cycled for 30 minutes had a better memory, reasoning and could strategize after working out.
Slows Down the Aging Process
Apart from losing muscle mass, aging affects the muscle’s ability to contract and absorb oxygen. It also leads to reduced telomere length, a critical aspect in cell replication. Cycling reverses this process.
Observational studies show people who engage in high levels of physical activity have longer telomere lengths. That’s why athletes and relatively active people have longer telomere lengths than non-athletes.
King’s College in London released a study involving male and female cyclists aged 55 and 79 to determine if cycling slowed the aging process. After three weeks of cycling (twice a week), the researchers found that the cyclists exhibited less age-related muscle deterioration in muscle mass, tissue level, and their strength remained intact.
Falls are pretty common among seniors and are often associated with poor balance, gait instability, and length weakness — a third of adults aged 65 years and above fall at least once a year.
Cycling can increase balance and leg strength, thus reducing falls. A study involving 43 participants aged 44 -79 years found that adults who cycled for an hour every week performed better than non-riders.
They could balance on one leg for 62 seconds longer than non-cyclists which is a pretty large difference statistically. While the clinical significance of the finding is somewhat difficult to judge, many studies have found that reduced one-leg standing time increases the probability of falling.
Boosts the Immune System
Apart from slowing down the aging process, cycling rejuvenates the immune system. Scientists carried out tests on 125 cyclists aged 55-79 years and healthy adults who didn’t exercise regularly.
According to the findings, the cyclists’ anti-aging effects extended to the immune system. The scientists found that the thymus of older cyclists generated more T-cells than those of the control group.
Generally, the thymus organ produces the body’s immune cells, and from age 20, it declines by 2-3% every year. By the time one attains middle age, the thymus is down to 15%, causing the body to rely on antibodies it has developed from fighting germs over the years.
Reduced Joint Stress
Running, jogging, or walking long distances is challenging for seniors. The activities can aggravate injured or worn-out joints. Cycling is somewhat safer as it mounts less pressure on the joints.
In addition, it strengthens the knee muscles without wearing out the joints. However, it’s important to consider the pace and the terrain when cycling as they can cause knee pain. Cycling uphill, for example, exerts more pressure on the knees than pedaling on flat pathways.
How to Prepare the Body for Cycling
Cycling in your 50s is pretty different from your 20s and 30s. Your first turn of pedals may be accompanied by creaks and pops as your joints and muscles settle down.
As if that’s not enough, it takes longer to feel like you’ve warmed up properly for the activity. Here are a few guidelines to help you prepare your body for the activity adequately:
Pick the Right Bike
Examine the bike or ask a professional to do it to prevent accidents. You also want to ensure you have the right size, as the wrong size poses a safety issue.
Alternatively, purchase a new bicycle designed for senior biking. Modern models are easier to maneuver than old, clunky ones. Some examples include:
Hybrid bikes: This is a great alternative for all recreational riders regardless of their age. Hybrid bikes come equipped with shifters, a flat handlebar, and different gears to make riding uphill easy
Gravel bike: This model is for cycling on different surfaces, including dirt roads. It’s almost similar to a road-racing bike, except the tires are wider and has an upright position to enhance comfort
Cruiser bikes: It’s the easiest to ride on flat surfaces. It comes equipped with a large saddle, wide tires, upright handlebars, and some cruiser bikes come with step-through frames that make it easy to get on and off the bike
Mountain bikes: The model has more gears and wider tires to absorb shock when riding over rough terrains. Mountain bikes are ideal for seniors with back problems because the shock feature makes the ride more comfortable on the back.
Be sure to test out the bike and get a proper fitting before taking the bike home. Keep in mind; your tolerance level is minimal if you haven’t used a bike in decades. As such, it’s important to make all adjustments at the bike shop.
Recumbent bikes: They are ideal for senior biking and adults riding for the first time because they support the lower back while reducing the pressure on the knees and hips.
Consider Cycling an Electric Bike
If none of the options is a perfect fit, your safest bet is an electric bike. They can propel you if not pedaling but, it’s not the best way to achieve physical activity. Electric bikes also help maneuver steep hills easily and reduce fatigue.
Acquaint Yourself with the Basics
If you haven’t cycled in a while, try different gears and safety features. It’s best to perform them on a grassy area like an empty parking lot and:
- Make the right and left turns
- Apply the brakes when stopping
- Ride slowly while maintaining balance
- Shift the gears up and down
- When making left and right turns, use hand signals
Warm Up Adequately
The primary reason for warming up is to avoid developing an injury. As the body ages, it needs a little extra time to embark on rigorous physical activity.
It’s not just about stretching the muscles; a little cardio goes a long way in increasing the heart rate and blood circulation. An adequate warm-up also reduces tension. Here are some exercises:
While stretching appears a seemingly easy activity, it loosens the muscles and promotes muscle activity and blood circulation. Some stretches that will help you achieve optimum physique before riding a bike include:
- Downward stretches: It strengthens the core and the lower back when cycling, which get tired and tight after riding bikes. They also open the hips and release tension along the spine
- Seated glute stretch: The stretch works your glutes and piriformis muscles which get tight or tired and can cause lower back pain
- Upper trap stretch: It loosens the muscles running from the base of the skull to the backside of the neck. It’s best to use a chair when performing this exercise to achieve the best results
- Doorway stretch: Since the legs never extend fully when pedaling, the hamstrings get contracted frequently. This exercise increases hamstring flexibility, minimizing the chances of developing back pain
Cyclists often develop tightness around the hips after cycling for prolonged periods. Leg swings maintain hip-flexor flexibility to avoid injury. The best way to perform it is to swing your legs outward and backward while supporting yourself with a bar.
It’s the perfect exercise before cycling since the hips, thighs, and knees are most engaged when cycling. Bodyweight squats are the best for warming up as long as you find the perfect position when performing the exercise.
This exercise has long been known for involving all the body muscles. From the legs to the feet, arms, and the spine.
They help loosen the butt muscles, thighs, and hip flexor. It’s also a great cardio exercise that strengthens the hamstrings hence increasing one’s cycling speed.
Butt-kicks also boost the heart rate and increase the metabolic rate. It’s best to repeat the exercise for one minute for optimal heart rate acceleration and warm-up.
Increase the Mileage Progressively
Seniors often complain about knee pain after cycling. The problem is after riding fast, hard, and long distances, the connective tissues on the knee wear out.
It’s best to ride short distances slowly and increase mileage over time, e.g., 20-25% every week.
If your longest ride has been 50 miles during the week, ride 60 miles the next week and 65 or 70 in the following week. Factor in the terrain, too; cycling on hills can be very exhausting if it’s your first time.
Check Your Sitting Position
A poorly fit saddle can cause pain, stress, and sometimes injury. The rule of thumb is to place the pedals in a 6 o’clock and 12′ o’clock position and allow your heel to rest on the lower pedal.
The bottom line is to ensure the leg is straight, i.e., a 20-25 degree knee bend when clipped. If your feet are parallel to the floor, make sure the forward knee comes over the ball of the foot.
If the front part of your knee hurts, raise the saddle or move it backward when using the handlebar. Similarly, if the back section of the knee aches, lower or move it forward.
Deal with Balancing Problems
Balance is a common problem among seniors, and it’s essential to find ways of dealing with it before riding a bike. Riding a stationary bike goes a long way in achieving balance, but if you’re big on cycling outdoors, it’s best to go for a spinning class or yoga first.
Also, when riding, maintain a comfortable position without shifting your weight. A recumbent bike also comes in handy because it reduces pressure on your back, rear, and hands.
Your body is a little less forgiving than it used to be in your 20s, so you want to fuel up properly before cycling. The best way is to get a proper serving of proteins (30-40 g per meal) and low-calorie, high-volume foods like fruits and veggies.
You also need to refuel after 30-60 minutes of cycling because recovery from hard workouts takes longer in older adults. Also, carry a bottle of water on your bike to take sips while riding.
With this comprehensive cycling for seniors guide, you’ll be well on your way to embarking on the journey. We know that finding a good bike for cycling can be a little daunting.
Luckily with our wealth of resources, you can start your journey easily.