What Does Cycling Do to Your Body?

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Almost any repeated exercise makes both physiological and mental changes. Commuting by bike is no exception.

I am sure we are all more mindful now than ever of World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance. One of its key tenets is showing how important exercise in general is, with a particular focus on aerobic exercise. Indeed, WHO recommends that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.

150 minutes of exercise may sound a lot on the face of it. However, you could easily hit this threshold with a bike by bike of just 15 minutes each way on weekdays. That’s not time “lost” in the gym, that’s time going somewhere – whether it be your place of work, the local shops or even the pub!

Why Cycling is Good

There are many, many benefits of cycling. These include not just the numerous environmental and societal benefits, but also the many good things it does to your body.

In short, cycling improves:

  • Overall fitness
  • Leg strength and muscle tone
  • Heart health
  • Breathing
  • Fat burning
  • Mental health
  • Life expectancy

One of my favourite quotes comes from Robert Butler at the National Institute of Aging. He said:

“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”

It’s so true. And cycling could be your easy pill.

Will Cycling Get Me Fit?

In short, yes.

The National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention found that cyclists had a fitness level equivalent to someone ten years younger than them.

Of course, there is no one single metric by which all fitness is measured but rather a broader picture is built up using several metrics. Amazingly, cycling has been proven to be beneficial in almost every one of them.

And that’s not exclusive to elite level training; studies have shown that even commuting by bike has a statistically significant increase in cardiorespiratory fitness. Read on for more specifics.

What Will Cycling Do to Your Heart?

Cycling has many benefits for your heart and fitness in general. One of the primary ways in which cycling improves your fitness is that it strengthens your heart muscles. But as well as that, it also lowers your resting pulse rate and can reduce blood fat levels.

Cycle commuting has been proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and a British Heart Foundation study found that cyclists who cycled 20 miles a week were 50% less likely to have a myocardial infarction (AKA a heart attack) than their non-cycling counterparts.

Another recent study has shown that the risk of all coronary heart diseases is 46% lower for those of us who commute by bike as opposed to cars and public transport.

Just to be clear, these studies are referring to commuter cyclists – the not Lycra-clad, superbike riding, genetically freakish pro cyclists.

And there’s more good news for those among the commuters who are women, as studies have shown that women gain even more cardiovascular benefits than men for the same exercise.

Cycling Cardiovascular Benefits Summary:

  • Strengthens heart muscles
  • Lowers resting pulse rate
  • Reduces blood fat levels
  • Up to 50% less likely to have a heart attack

What Will Cycling Do to Your Lungs?

The benefits to your lungs of commuting by bike are two-fold.

The first is in a similar vein (no pun intended) to the benefits of the actual exercise as seen in the heart; the second is due to fewer pollutants being inhaled during the commute.

Inner-city based studies have shown that despite the increased air intake of cyclists, motorists still surprisingly inhale 60% more carbon dioxide and other nasty pollutants than cyclists. Other studies demonstrate more extreme numbers (in the cyclist’s favour) even showing how walkers are subject to more pollutants.

Cycling also increases lung capacity by 5-15%, which not only means you can go faster for less effort but also that you are less likely to snore (your spouse/roommate will thank you) and breathe less heavily off the bike.

Cycling Lung Benefits Summary:

  • Increases lung capacity by 5-15%
  • Inhale 60% less pollutants than motorists
  • Less likely to snore

How Cycling Changes Your Legs

While the idea of cyclists’ legs may conjure up images of Chris Hoy’s quadzilla thighs or grand tour cyclists’ veiny tan-lined legs, the truth for the commuter thankfully lies in the less extreme.

With most commuting, unless you happen to be carrying lead weights, you aren’t likely to gain huge leg muscles. What has been well-documented, however, is the impact that cycling has for toning your quads (thighs) and glutes (bottom) by building up the endurance muscle fibres and burning fat (more on this later).

Other changes that are less visible, but of equal importance, are the strengthening of bones and joints and increased joint mobility. Fantastically, cycling – being very low impact – has been shown time and time again to significantly improve movement and drastically reduce pain in patients with osteoarthritis.

Cycling Leg Benefits Summary:

  • Tones thighs and bum
  • Increases muscle endurance
  • Burns fat
  • Improves bonus and joint strength and mobility
  • Reduces symptoms of arthritis

TOM’S STORY: How Cycling to the Shops Helps Him Supress Parkinson’s Disease

Where Does Cycling Burn Fat?

A gentle half an hour bike ride each day has been shown to burn almost 5kgs of fat per year.

Cycling significantly increases metabolism, with some studies showing that metabolism remains significantly raised for the 14 hours following a ride. Fat loss from cycling primarily occurs in the legs and glutes (bottom), depending on the type of riding, while fat can also be loss from the rider’s trunk when more muscle groups are utilised.

While the recipe for losing weight is simple (burn more calories than you consume), executing this out can be anything but.

Impressively, an hour of commute cycling has been shown to burn 540 calories which goes a significant way towards burning the recommended calorie intake.

And if you’re looking for evidence of how you can lose weight by cycling, check out our interview with Daniela – who lost 50lb in less than a year just by cycling work.

Multiple studies have shown that people who commute to work are much less likely to be obese or overweight, with commuters via car or public transport 50% more likely to be obese than their cycling colleagues.

Once again, these studies have focused specifically on everyday urban and suburban commutes, not specially tailored training programmes in some mountain range.

Cycling Weight Loss Benefits:

  • Commuting by bike burns 540 calories per hour
  • Bike commuters are 50% less likely to be obese
  • Cycling 30 minutes per day will burn 5kg (11lbs) of fat per year
  • Metabolism remains raised for 14 hours after cycling

AMAZING STORY: How Daniela Lost 50lb in Under a Year by Cycling to Work

Cycling Increases Life Expectancy

Studies in the Netherlands have shown that 6,500 premature deaths are avoided each year as a direct result of cycling and that only 75 minutes of cycling a week can extend one’s life expectancy on average by 1.5 years.

This led to the proliferation of the statistic that every hour you cycle, you live an hour longer, which is a much easier way of visualising the results.

In a landmark study with over quarter of a million participants, commuting by cycle was associated with an up to 13% reduction of risk in all-cause mortality.

Other studies have also shown a decreased risk of all-cause mortality being significantly associated with regular commuting bike use. A large contributor to this is the decreased risks of cardiovascular diseases as already discussed but also that commuting by bike decreases risk of cancer significantly.

Biking to work is shown to reduce the risk of cancer by far more than any other method of commuting including walking. Cycling is especially linked to reducing breast cancer and bowel cancer. A study in the UK found that the risk of cancer was 45% lower for those who cycled.

I can hear the concerned onlooker raving about how dangerous cycling is, but multiple studies have shown that in a risk-benefit analysis, not cycling is much more dangerous than cycling.

Cycling Life Expectancy Summary:

  • 75 minutes of cycling per week increases life expectancy by 1.5 years
  • Bike commuters have 13% lower risk of all fatal diseases and illnesses
  • Cyclists have 45% lower risk of cancer

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What Does Cycling Do to Your Mental Health?

During the lockdown, we gained a greater appreciation and understanding for mental health (and rightly so) and its link to physical exercise.

Over the last few years this has become increasingly well-documented with regards to cycle commuting. It’s been shown to improve self-esteem, reduce stress, give greater feelings of freedom, increase satisfaction with the commute and decrease risk of anxiety and depression.

Your boss might also be happier if you start commuting, not solely because they can now admire your toned legs but also because cycling to commute has been linked to increased productivity (and greater punctuality).

Anecdotally, I have found that the feeling of smugness when I arrive at the office on my bike, for free, having burnt fat and arrived more quickly than public transport sets me up for the day pretty well.

Cycling Mental Health Benefits

  • Improves self-esteem
  • Reduces stress
  • Decreases risk of anxiety and depression
  • Linked to increased productivity

What Cycling Won’t Do to You

Having been raised by a father who is a urologist, I grew up with some interesting journals around the house and have been within earshot of some very odd conversations when guests felt the need to divulge their entire medical history round the dinner table.

One of the topics that has come up several times is the idea that cycling in some way affects the sexual health of men. There are many myths around this area and no lack of companies using that to flog expensive saddles.

Thankfully, recent research has shed light on this issue, but rather than me try and explain the results badly, do give a listen to this video where many of the most common concerns have been discussed in a very helpful way. The long and the short of it is: this shouldn’t put you off cycling!

Cycling Health Statistics

I am a numbers guy and I remember numbers much better than I do words, so here are a few stats to help summarise the health benefits of cycling:

  • 45% reduced risk of cancer
  • 540 calories burnt per hour
  • 60% less carbon monoxide inhaled
  • 46% reduced risk of coronary heart disease
  • 1 hour of life added for each hour spent cycling
  • 100s of great reasons to start cycling to work

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