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As the annual multistage Tour de France pedals into full swing, many of us are being tempted to head back to the garage and pull out our tragically neglected bicycles. The great thing about cycling is that it offers a great method for taking low-impact exercise in the great outdoors, and you don’t have to replicate the 2,000-mile race in order to get a little bit of your own Tour de France on.
From elite cyclists to those who are seriously ill, biking provides something for all. So, if you are wondering where you are up to the challenge of moving a little more this summer, we’ve got you covered.
Robert Duran is a cancer survivor who bikes to the medical center at the University of California to undergo treatment for his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis. In all, he tallies up somewhere in the region of 50 to 100 miles of cycling each week. If he can make the effort to stay active, there’s a good chance that you can too because there’s a wealth of health benefits to be had from getting on your bike.
“Cycling is one of the things I love and enjoy doing most, because it puts me in my happy space,” says Duran. “When I’m biking, nothing else matters, not even cancer and that is why I continue to cycle as much as I can… even during the days when I receive chemotherapy. And, when I’m not cycling, I add high-intensity training to exercise different muscle groups. Exercise gives me the strength to fight cancer and live a normal life.”
Of course, there’s no substitute for professional medical treatments, medication, and chemotherapy, but individuals with all different health issues can benefit from the bike.
David S. Levine, MD is a foot and ankle specialist in New York and a member of the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). He’s received the “Excellence in Orthopedics” award from his peers, and he is also proponent of the value of cycling.
“Cycling is a low-impact, cardio form of exercise,” says Levine. “As such, muscles including the heart are trained to work efficiently and grow modestly. Weight bearing joints are loaded but not excessively, thereby avoiding over-load which can lead to injury and arthritis over time. The lungs are trained to efficiently take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Cycling can be performed in groups; strengthening friendships and promoting healthy competition and the encouragement to improve.”
The social buzz of cycling in a community is something that Duran agrees with wholeheartedly. He’s met a number of fellow cyclists through his work with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and developed great friendships over the years. “Riding my bike with friends is very important to my mental health,” he says. “It is a way to hold myself accountable for keeping my riding consistent and have a meaningful impact not only for myself, but also to my friends. If I say I’m going to ride at a certain date and time, then I better show up. But I also look at it as a challenge to compete with my friends and other cyclists along the route.”
Vigorous exercises activate your muscles, stimulates brain activity, and causes the release of endorphins says Dr Levine. These conditions often create the sensations of awareness, focus and euphoria that is sometimes referred to as a natural or runners high.
“Regular exercise, such as cycling, does have a positive impact on the immune system,” Levin explains.
Some of the reasons, according to Levine, include:
For those with serious health issues like Duran, a boost to the immune system, through sensible exercise that is within his limits, is so important. If you are concerned about pushing yourself too hard, you can stay on track by building in plenty of recovery time. “I think getting proper physical rest and recovery is important and I feel getting mental rest is important too,” says Duran. “Because I cycle frequently, my mental state is relaxed and happy. As a result, many of the trivial things in life, as well as stressful situations, don’t bother me as much.”
“Depending on the nature of an injury, exercise such as cycling can be particularly helpful,” says Levine. “As an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon, I often surgically repair broken ankles. While these patients are unable to walk early in their recovery, stationary bicycling promotes muscle function and avoids atrophy. It also maintains the motion of an injured or repaired ankle joint and is helpful for cartilage preservation and nutrition. Of course, one should check with their physician before beginning a vigorous exercise program. That said, responsible, progressive, low impact exercise is rarely contraindicated.” In terms of supplementation, Dr Levine says that a healthy diet including Vitamin D and Calcium, along with adequate sleep is the best “supplement” to an indoor or outdoor cycling exercise program.
“Often, there are times when I don’t feel like getting kitted up to go for a ride in inclement weather,” says Duran. “But I ride anyway and during the ride, the endorphins kick in and I feel energized. Then the dopamine rush comes and I feel a major sense of accomplishment and well-being after the ride. Those positive effects of cycling carry me through my chemo treatment and are the reasons why I have the energy to live a normal life.”
So, just start pedaling, and enjoy the journey.