The Benefits of Biking, For Your Body and Mind

More women than ever are cycling — it’s a way increase your cardio, improve your mental health, connect with nature, be social and, at this particular moment in time, feel a little bit freer.

Like many Canadians, in March 2020, Joanna Barcessat’s life changed in an instant. On Friday the 13th, she closed her two Montreal juice bars, unsure of when she and her staff would return. At home under lockdown, Barcessat, 51, found herself with the kind of time she hadn’t had since starting her business several years earlier and a desire to spend as much of it as possible outdoors. So in July, after she decided not to reopen her second location, Barcessat did something she’d been wanting to do for eight years: She dusted off her road bike, took it in for a tune-up and hopped on for a ride. That beautiful summer day, Barcessat cycled for 90 minutes, pedalling along Montreal’s Lachine Canal. She took it at an easy pace, but she felt excited and accomplished — she had gotten back on her bike.

(Related: 5 Handy Biking Apps to Amp Up Your Ride)

Barcessat, who studied physical education at McGill University, used to be a regular cyclist – she even rode with a group of triathletes. But when she started her business, Rejuice Nutrition, and opened her first cold-pressed juice store in 2011, she gave it up. “If I could, I would go to a spinning or circuit-training class for an hour,” she says, “but I didn’t have the time to commit to riding anymore.” It took the pandemic to finally get her back in the saddle — and, once she started, she wasn’t stopping for anything. “I had this joke: My store could be on fire, and I’m not giving up my bike ride,” she says. “I had given so much to my business for so long that I forgot to take care of myself.” From July to October, Barcessat rode three mornings a week, rediscovering her favourite routes and seeking out new ones. “Riding was my escape from the stress that came with running a business and being a mom during a pandemic,” she says. “It helped clear my mind and, at the same time, gave me a great workout.”

In the past 12 months, many have had the same idea: Cycling is booming, as people around the world look to stay active, be outdoors and find new ways to get around in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, the World Health Organization recommended cycling or walking as a means of both socially distant, open-air transportation and daily physical activity. Just a few weeks later, bike shops across Canada reported surging sales as many Canadians took out their new two-wheelers, heading to nature-adjacent bike trails and taking advantage of quieter streets and city-wide road closures. And many of these new or returning riders are women: Strava, the world’s largest online fitness platform, saw the number of cycle rides uploaded double in 2020, while women ages 30 to 59 uploaded almost 50 percent more activities between April and September 2020 than during the same period the year before.

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“One of the reasons we saw this surge is that we were limited in the activities we could do — and we still are,” says Julia Aimers, an Ottawa-based exercise physiologist and triathlon coach. “The walk around the block gets a little bit boring after a while.” In addition to offering a much-needed sense of freedom, cycling provides a cardiovascular workout, it’s low impact (read: it lubricates the joints while also being gentle on them) and it’s more accessible than other forms of cardio, like running. “It’s a big effort to run. If you’re a little overweight, it’s hard on your cardiovascular system. Biking is accessible — you jump on, the seat holds some of your weight, and it’s easy to go fast and easy to go slow,” says Aimers. She equates an easy ride to going for a walk, with the workout increasing depending on factors like gears, incline and speed. “If you want to compare it to training for a 10K run, you’d be doing hill training, riding against the wind and doing some speed repeats,” says Aimers.

No matter how you’re cycling, the physical benefits are real: It helps lower your risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. A significant 2017 U.K. study that followed more than 260,000 commuters found that those who cycled to work reduced their overall risk of an early death by 41 percent; another study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine links weekly rides (anywhere from one to 60 minutes in length) to a 23 percent lower risk of premature mortality. And the dividends of regular pedalling are also mental: Research published in the Lancet in 2018 looked at the association between exercise and mental health in more than 1.2 million Americans, and those who cycled regularly were found to experience 21.6 percent fewer bad mental health days.

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Angela Chang rides regularly with Liv, a cycling community centred on the women-focused bike shop of the same name in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. For Chang, 44, finding a group to cycle with took her from using biking as a means of commuting to entering a full-fledged cycling scene — one that’s warm, welcoming and approachable for all skill levels. Chang is a great example of the physical and mental impacts cycling can deliver: Since she started riding with Liv four years ago, she’s gained muscle mass, increased her endurance and improved her cardiovascular health (her doctor says it’s like that of a teenager’s). The rides also offer a respite from her stressful role as a partner at an accounting firm. “Being on the bike, outside and in nature, provides a mental break from my desk that’s important for me,” she says. But perhaps the biggest advantage for Chang is the social element of riding with a group — and the motivation her fellow riders supply. “You meet people who push you beyond what you imagine is possible. If I think I can only ride 40K, but the group is going 50, then maybe I’ll try that,” she says. Throughout the pandemic, in lieu of riding in person in large groups, Chang has been doing so virtually, with women from across North America: “We all chat on an app while we ride on our trainers at home, talking about cookie recipes, our cats or dogs or kids; that social interaction is really fun.”

Barcessat recognizes that her previous experience of cycling in a group pushed her physically — and her goal is to join one again, maybe even this season. But last year, one of the things she loved most about getting back on her bike solo was reconnecting to the outdoors. Nature has provided much-needed balm for many Canadians throughout the pandemic: A recent Ipsos poll conducted for the Nature Conservancy of Canada revealed that 94 percent of Canadians have found spending time in nature has helped relieve stress and anxiety during the pandemic’s second wave, while three out of four of those surveyed revealed that moments in nature are more important to them now than ever before. “The visual aspect of getting on your bike and actually looking around and being present is what’s valuable — the workout and the calories burnt are just added benefits,” Barcessat says.

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Throughout the pandemic, many cities have made it safe and easy to access the outdoors by closing roads to vehicle traffic. Last April, the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation temporarily shut down Stanley Park to cars to allow more space for cycling and walking, while in Toronto, the city’s ActiveTO initiative saw High Park, as well as major roadways like Lake Shore Boulevard, open exclusively to cyclists and pedestrians on weekends. Meghan Winters, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Simon Fraser University who leads the Cities, Health & Active Transportation Research lab, is encouraged by how quickly urban areas were able to implement these initiatives and how, in doing so, more people took up or returned to cycling. “It was exciting to see that cities can create and accommodate the space that’s needed for walking and cycling,” says Winters. “It allowed them to test designs and locations, but I’m looking for things to be more thoughtful and permanent as we move into the second year [of the pandemic].”

It’s initiatives like these that encourage people — especially women, who, research shows, were less likely to cycle than men, particularly on traffic-heavy streets — to ride on roadways and bike paths for the first time, eventually becoming regular cyclists and reaping all of the benefits that come with it. “Riding in Stanley Park during the full closure was a heavenly experience,” says Winters. “I’d imagine there were people who had not been on a bicycle in 15 years. All of a sudden, there was this park you could cycle through — and I think once people tried that, they were willing to go to other places. It starts with safe, protected places, and then people will build daily habits.”

Barcessat doesn’t plan on getting so busy again that she gives up riding. “When things go back to normal, whatever normal is going to be, I don’t think I’ll be the only one who re-evaluates what we want to put back into our lives.” For her, cycling is here to stay, and she plans to get an early start this season. “As I was riding last summer, I had all these dreams and plans. I forgot how good it feels to be on my bike.”

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada