Whether cycling is your primary mode of transportation, your preferred exercise or just something you do on occasion for fun, there’s no denying the health benefits of riding a bike. The low-impact activity boosts your cardiovascular health, bolsters your immune system, lowers stress, improves your mental health, and aids weight loss. So, there are plenty of reasons to embrace the two-wheeled sport. But, a new study is giving us more insight into an unexpected benefit of cycling as we age.
RESEARCH ON WALKING PERFORMANCE
Researchers at Humboldt State University noted that declined walking performance is a key determinant of chronic disease and premature death among older adults. Healthy seniors typically display a walking economy 15–20% lower than that of their younger selves. Fortunately, exercise is a proven way to mitigate this decline. In fact, the same researchers already found joggers are less likely to experience age-related physical decline in their walking than those who walk for exercise. But their latest study looked specifically at how cycling impacts one’s ability to walk.
CYCLING VERSUS NOT
The new study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity looked at adults over the age of 65 who either walked or cycled for exercise. The researchers discovered those who ride a bicycle for at least 30 minutes three times a week were less likely to experience an age-related physical decline in walking efficiency than those who simply walked for the same period.
They tested the theory by putting participants on a treadmill at various speeds and measuring their oxygen consumption. The older cyclists used up to 17% less oxygen when walking compared to the non-cyclists, registering numbers that were similar to those of the younger control group.
“What we found is that older adults who regularly participate in high aerobic activities — bicycling in particular — have what we call a lower metabolic cost of walking than older adults who walk for exercise,” says Justus Ortega, a kinesiology professor and the director of Humboldt State’s Biomechanics Lab. “In fact, their metabolic cost of walking is similar to young adults in their 20s.”
DEFINING METABOLIC COST
Metabolic cost is a measure of the amount of energy required to move. The higher the cost, the more difficult walking becomes, and that cost naturally increases with age.
According to the study results, cycling doesn’t simply beget better cycling — it also prepares one’s body to walk better and easier. That’s in contrast to walking for exercise, which does not display the same benefits on the natural age-related deterioration of walking economy.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The researchers note that any exercise is better than not exercising. So, walkers shouldn’t be discouraged if that is their preferred method of exercise. But it would be more beneficial for walkers to increase their pace, tackle some hills or even to jog on occasion if their body allows. Otherwise, try hopping on a bike. The low-impact activity is not just good for the heart and mind — it helps keep you walking comfortably and efficiently for years to come.
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