By: Michael Lander
Cycling offers Memphians a chance to peddle their way to improved heath, fitness, and a better quality of life.
With the recent addition of bike lanes and places to ride in and around the city of Memphis, many area residents may also discover some of the many benefits associated with cycling.
There are many reasons why people decide to take up cycling. It could be for exercise, health, recreation, or as a means of inexpensive and environmentally-friendly transportation. While cyclists have their own reasons why they ride, a 2003 Omnibus Survey conducted by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that, of the 20.9 million people who ride bikes, 41 percent reported doing so for exercise and health.
Jerry Travers, in an Adultbicycling.com article, identified some of the health benefits associated with cycling. These benefits he said include building strength and muscle tone, improving cardio-vascular fitness, burning calories, improving heart health, and reducing stress.
"Cycling is also a good way to begin an exercise regimen," said Tyler Farney, a University of Memphis Research Associate and certified strength and conditioning specialist. "Most people can get a good work-out on a bike without necessarily starting off in great shape."
Those who do cycle, he said, "need to do it at a sufficient intensity level to get the full benefit out of it though." Unlike running, cycling also offers minimal impact on a person's joints, Farney said.
For many Memphis area residents, cycling might really be something worth considering. For a city that has earned a reputation for its tasty, fried southern cuisine and its world-renowned barbecue, Memphis has also distinguished itself in a far less savory way.
In 2007, Forbes Magazine ranked Memphis as the most sedentary and obese city in the country. This ranking by Forbes was based on information that it had received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. The Centers for Disease Control determined, from data collected in 2006, that 32 percent of the nation was obese and that Memphis came in at the highest with 34 percent. A 2009 risk behavior study by the CDC also indicated that 17 percent of Memphis high school students were clinically obese as well.
Recognizing the epidemic of childhood obesity throughout the country, first lady Michelle Obama initiated her "Let's Move" campaign. There are several blogs on the campaign's website that endorse and promote cycling with special emphasis on encouraging children to become more active. To address this issue locally, the Healthy Memphis Common Table and the Memphis Church Health Center have both developed their own initiatives and programs to help local area residents combat obesity.
Cycling, along with other similar cardiovascular activities, can help with weight loss and in the prevention of diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle, inactivity, and excess weight. Being overweight may be a leading contributing factors "to the increased chances for developing Type 2 diabetes, strokes, coronary disease, and cancer," Farney said.
Some additional benefits from cycling might extend beyond the body to the mind as well. Dr. Dennis Stokes, Chief of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital and a Children's Lung Disease Specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, said that "there is good evidence of dementia prevention benefits of regular exercise."
Stokes, who is an avid cyclist himself, also cited a May 2003 Annual Review of Public Health that said that physical activity may contribute to the prevention of cognitive decline, delaying the onset of dementia, and may slow down the course of Alzheimer's disease. Research conducted by Washington University in St. Louis also found a possible correlation between physical inactivity and the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in individuals who carry a specific variant gene.
Along with the potential health benefits of a physical activity such as cycling, there are also some inherent risks associated with it as well. Even though there is always a possibility of someone experiencing a heart attack or a stroke while cycling, Farney said, there are usually underlying factors that often only surface when someone physically exerts themselves.
To help minimize or prevent this from occurring, Stokes recommends that anyone interested in cycling should get a physical exam, get their blood pressure checked, and start off slowly when they first take up cycling.
There is a saying that knowledge is power and this is also true when it comes to cycling. Beginning cyclists can avoid many health-related troubles and other problems by learning as much as they can about cycling before they even hit the road.
There are numerous websites, like the League of American Bicyclists, where beginning cyclists can go to find useful information on cycling. There are also books that beginning cyclists might find very useful, such as the Bicycling Magazine's Complete Book on Road Cycling Skills: Your Guide to Riding Faster, Stronger, Longer, and Safer.
In addition to the many books, magazines, and websites geared toward cyclists, there are also several local area bicycle clubs, like the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, that beginning cyclists can turn to in order to learn more about cycling. Memphis Hightailers Club President, Stephen Watson, said that the club "often provides training on how to ride, along with proper riding techniques, for beginning cyclists." The club also organizes rides where riders can meet, ride, and learn from one another.
"There are also some added health and mental benefits of cycling," Watson said, and it has helped him feel better and it can really be an incentive for others to do the same.