In the past, I frequently recommended bicycling, and/or stationary spinning to my patients as a source of fun, aerobic exercise, cardiovascular health and stress relief.
However, after many young bicyclists were found to have osteopenia (wasting of bones) associated with serious fractures, researchers looked into a possible association between bicycling and bone health. There is a way to continue enjoying bicycling and spinning without fear of damaging your bones. Here’s how.
Bicycling and Your Bones
Back in 2006, a graduate student/avid bicyclist at the University of Oklahoma, Aaron Smathers, was doing research on the phenomena of brittle bones in cyclists. His own bone scans had shown that his bones were not as dense as they should be for a young man his age. Not long after he suffered several serious fractures. In fact, even champion cyclists Lance Armstrong and Christian Vande Velde also suffered serious bone fractures in crashes during races. Broken bones are high amongst cyclists which might be expected from crashing a bike at high speeds.
However, Smathered wondered if there might be a deeper connection between cycling and bone fractures. His study involved 32 young (age 20-30) male, competitive cyclists. Bone scans showed that almost all had much lower than normal-for-age bone density.
Since Smather’s original studies, numerous other studies have shown similar results – cyclists have less bone density than participants in other sports. One particular study done in 2008 started with a group of younger male cyclists with slightly lower than average bone density. At the end of their racing season, they had experienced even more bone density loss in their hips. Further subsequent studies echoed the results of all these former studies – cycling negatively impacts bone density raising the risk of serious fractures significantly.
Why Does Cycling Affect Bones So Badly?
In all the research studies done on cycling and bone health, researchers have not been able to find a definitive cause why cycling decreases bone density. However, a few things unique to cycling may set the problem in motion:
- No stress-strengthening. Bicycling does not place stress on bones like other “impact” sports of running, dancing, weight lifting, etc. Bones respond to stress by strengthening themselves. If bicycling is the only exercise you do, your bones could suffer.
- Loss of calcium. Cyclists can lose calcium through sweating especially in warm weather. The harder you cycle, the more you sweat and the more calcium you lose. A cyclist can lose 100 mg of calcium per hour of vigorous cycling!
- High calorie loss. Hard bicycling, or even spinning, can burn a lot of calories per hour. This can result in weight loss that may not just be fat – it may be muscle as well, especially if you have not been doing resistance training. Bone strength is also dependent on muscle mass and strength as muscles rub against bones to stimulate their growth. If you’re losing muscle mass, your bones could suffer too.
How’s Your Bone Density?
I recommend my patients have bone density scans once a year after age 50. This is also called a DEXA scan. It’s a painless, actually relaxing, test that involves lying on a table while a scan moves slowly over you. If you haven’t had one yet and are over the age of 50, I strongly recommend that you ask your doctor about it. After the age of 35, bone mineral density can start decreasing. Usually there are no real symptoms until a fracture occurs.
Protect Your Bones and Keep on Bicycling
Granted, the research done on cycling and bone density involved competitive cycling which is a much more intense form of bicycling than most of my patients, or likely you, do. However, even if you’re just taking a spinning class a few times a week, or riding your bike at a good clip and pace for a few hours on challenging terrains, I want to make sure that you’re not decreasing your bone density while doing so. Here are some things I recommend:
- Hydration. Using a sports drink that has electrolytes (of which calcium is one) would help, especially in warmer weather when you’re likely to sweat more. Forego energy drinks with caffeine and phosphates in them as they can add to low bone density.
- Calcium intake. Be sure to eat enough calcium rich foods throughout the day and even while cycling. Recent research on taking calcium supplements, especially in women, have shown they may be detrimental to heart and vascular health. Pack some light almond milk in a thermos in addition to your regular water or sports drink.
- Bone density exercises. Cycling/spinning doesn’t stress bones enough to strengthen them so you need to do other exercises that will. Exercise like step aerobics, harder dancing that involves stomping your feet on the floor (zumba, hip hop, tap, polka). Jogging on pavement/black top, jump rope, jumping jacks, going down stairs, weight lifting, all help stimulate osteocytes (bone cells) to grow and get stronger. Also, just simply rising from a chair without using your hands can help strengthen your bones.
Maintaining good bone health and density is important as you get older. It will help prevent serious bone fractures and potentially immobilizing you for weeks or months. Be sure to get the right kind of bone-building exercise along with whatever leisurely bicycling you enjoy doing.
Mark Bromson, M.D.
Is Bicycling Bad For Your Bones? http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/01/is-bicycling-bad-for-your-bones/
Bone Density Exercises for Osteoporosis, Osteopenia, http://www.osteopenia3.com/bone-density-exercises.html
Spinning May Cause Osteoporosis, http://www.vcreporter.com/cms/story/detail/?id=2986&IssueNum=56
photo credit: bigtwincycling.com