You’re a cyclist because you love to ride, but likely you’re also a cyclist because you like staying fit and living a healthy lifestyle. Makes sense. Cycling gets you outside. It’s great cardio, and low impact on your joints. Sounds all good, right? Well, my buddy Gord, sent me an article last week that suggested that the same healthy, low-impact activity can actually be a cause of bone loss in cyclists. Really?
A 2009 article published in LA Times’ health section, talks about a study done by Aaron Smathers, a graduate student in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at the University of Oklahoma where he found that male cyclists in their 20s and 30s exhibited significantly lower bone density, in their spines! The bone loss was actually severe enough to be considered osteopenia, which is a little less serious than osteoporosis.
So, how is it that young, healthy, active cyclists are found suffering from lower-than-normal bone density levels? Well, because cycling is low impact, combined with the long hours spent on the bike by professional cyclists, their bones simply start to lose strength. Remember your grade-school biology? Bones respond to pressure and strain by strengthening themselves. This is why moderate weight lifting is one of the recommendations for those who have lowered bone density.
Keep in mind, though, professional cyclists spend an extreme amount of time in the saddle, not uncommonly in the 15-20+ hours per week. I think elite cycling would be unique in this way. For a moment, I wondered if swimmers might be at risk here as well, but I’m not sure they spend the same time in the pool. So, unless you’re an elite level rider spending immense amounts of time on the bike, maybe don’t start thinking about trading in your new Cervélo R3sl for a set of runners and a gym pass quite yet, because the vote on this is still out. Interestingly, I found a more recent article that discounts that cycling causes bone loss, and instead actually increases it. I’m no doctor, but I’d have to think that although cycling is considered low impact, it’s not no impact. If you’ve ridden a road bike on Edmonton streets you’d know that. More than that though, I can’t see how the bone loss theory would apply mountain biking at all. I mean, mtb riders are putting their bones under constant strain.
All that said, it probably wouldn’t hurt us all to do a little cross-training though, run some stairs, do a few weights, etc… Being a more well-rounded athlete has its advantages. Right now, my cross-training mostly consists of walking around, bouncing a baby boy for a couple hours each day. Should put enough strain on my lower back to stave off osteopenia.