For Strong Bones, Cyclists Need Workouts Off the Bike

man doing exercise workout in garage, bone health for cyclists
You Need Workouts Off the Bike for Strong BonesRyanJLane - Getty Images

There’s no question that the exercise you get on your bike is good for your heart and muscles, but according to longstanding and more recent research, miles in the saddle aren’t doing your bones any good.

A new study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, looked at the bone density scores of 93 elite male and female cyclists at different periods in their cycling careers (early, active, and post-career). Researchers found a high prevalence of low bone mineral density among each group.

Low bone density, according to the Yale School of Medicine, describes bones with larger holes and thinner walls, compared to healthy bones, making them more fragile and likely to fracture.

The study revealed that 64 percent of male active-career cyclists had low bone density. Meanwhile, 45 percent of female early- and active-career cyclists had low bone density. Furthermore, 27 percent of early-career male cyclists, 50 percent of post-career male cyclists, and 20 percent of post-career female cyclists had low bone mineral density.

Although this most recent study was small, the findings reaffirm what other studies have shown: That because cycling is a low- to no-impact sport, it has “no strong benefits for bone health,” the lead author, Luuk Hilkens, a lecturer and researcher at HAN University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, tells Bicycling. “It is a non-weight bearing activity and, as such, does not result in strong ground reaction forces that normally stimulate bones to become stronger.”

The research team also identified four key risk factors most associated with low bone density: low body mass index (BMI), history of bone fracture, low levels of bone-building physical activity throughout the lifetime (namely, high-impact activity), and abnormal triiodothyronine (T3) levels, which indicates thyroid dysfunction that could affect bone formation.

Unfortunately, putting an extensive number of hours on the bike each week may correlate with an increased risk of lower bone mineral density, although more research needs to be done to find the exact connection, according to the study authors. Hilkens notes that when cyclists spend a lot of time on the bike it “leaves little time left for bone-strengthening activities.”

The study results do not surprise Jinger Gottschall, Ph.D., and director of applied research at Wahoo Sports Science. “Multiple past studies have demonstrated that low body mass index is correlated with low bone density—other characteristics associated with low bone density are individuals who spend the majority of their time seated (including elite cyclists, particularly road cyclists) and older adults,” she says.

The Problem With Low Bone Mineral Density

According to the New York State Department of Health, bone is living tissue that breaks down and rebuilds itself. As you grow up, you form new bone faster than you lose old bone, but as you get older your bone density, or how thick and strong your bones are, may decrease.

The only way to measure bone density is with a low-dose X-ray, usually taken of the hips and spine. Depending on the measurement, called a T-score, your doctor may detect low bone density a.k.a. osteopenia. It’s important to note that low bone density doesn’t mean you have osteoporosis, a more serious condition that means the structure and strength of your bone changes, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. But osteopenia can lead to osteoporosis.

While low bone density may sound alarming and it’s smart to take action to strengthen your bones, that doesn’t mean you have to stop riding. According to Hilkens, there are three key strategies that cyclists should prioritize for optimal bone health:

  • Take advantage of bone formation in the teen years

  • Prioritize strength training and weight-bearing movement as part of your exercise routine

  • Keep your BMI in the healthy range, and not in the lower BMI range

Why Bone Health Is Important for Young People

“A strong predictor of bone health during the active career of a professional cyclist is the amount of bone-specific physical activity they performed during their lifetime,” explains Hilkens. Activities that “load the bone” are those that are considered high-impact, including soccer, gymnastics, basketball, and running. This is true for non-professionals, as well.

In fact, Hilkens says, cyclists who played sports such as soccer during puberty and adolescence have higher bone density in comparison to cyclists who only rode their bikes when they were young. That’s why Hilkens recommends avoiding an early specialization in cycling until the teen years—the “golden years” of bone development—have passed.

Instead, for teenagers and younger athletes, cycling should be done in addition to weight-bearing sports. This ensures optimal bone development in adolescence, which appears to offer protection against future bone losses.

Of course, if you’re past puberty and your teen years, other strategies can help support bone health.

3 Ways to Improve Bone Health Now

“It is great that this research is getting public attention in order to help educate cyclists and the general population about the importance of maintaining bone mineral density,” Gottschall says.

Even if you didn’t spend a lot of time jumping rope or on a trampoline when you were a kid, it isn’t too late to keep your bone levels in the healthy range. Here are the details:

1. Perform High-Impact Activity

“Loading of the bones is the most important factor in preventing declines in bone health,” says Hilkens. “Bone-loading” activities include any exercises that exert force on the bones, particularly jumping, like you do with plyometric exercises, including jump squats or skaters. But activities like running and walking can also improve bone health, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Cyclists should perform short sessions of jumping exercise, such as jumping rope, to preserve bone mass,” Hilkens explains, adding that just five minutes of jump rope daily or every other day is enough.

Other plyometric exercises cyclists can add to their routines include burpees, lateral single-leg jumps, and box jumps, all of which will also build strength in your legs and improve your cardiovascular fitness, triathlon coach Kristin Hislop, USA Cycling level 3 coach and personal trainer with Hislop Coaching in Albany, New York tells Bicycling.

“One advantage runners have over cyclists is that they are constantly pounding their feet on the ground, causing stress to the joints,” Paul Warloski, USA Cycling level 3 coach and RRCA-certified run coach at Simple Endurance Coaching in Milwaukee, Wisconsin tells Bicycling. “When the joints and muscles are stressed during weight-bearing activities, they pull at the bone connections, causing the bone to create more bone tissue.” This is a simplified explanation, says Warloski, but research has shown that the more someone moves with their feet on the ground, in general, the more likely they are to have stronger bones.

Older cyclists may be hesitant to start jumping up and down, but it isn’t the intensity of the force that matters, but rather time spent moving against the resistance of gravity and the ground. For example, research shows brisk walking can improve bone mineral density in postmenopausal women, as does aerobic dance.

2. Lift Weights

Fortunately, if you aren’t one to dance, jump, or take long walks, strength training has been shown to have similar effects on bone health as plyometric activity. A bonus: It also helps to build muscle and power, which will help your rides, as well.

Strength training for cyclists will help prevent injury, maintain muscle mass, improve overall stability, increase bone density, improve force that one can apply into the pedals and in turn, cycle faster, and reduce muscular fatigue, which is a big limiter for most cyclists, especially late into their rides or races,” triathlon coach Natasha Van Der Merwe, founder of NVDM Coaching in Austin, Texas tells Bicycling. That’s a lot of benefits to come from picking up those weights!

The key to incorporating strength training into a training program is to give yourself proper recovery time, says Van Der Merwe. “Most programs will actually have the cyclist do their key cycling session in the morning and follow it up with a heavy lifting session that evening. The following day would then all be aerobic and lighter on the legs to allow them to recover and adapt from the heavy workload that day before,” she explains.

“Strength training is critical for all cyclists to build bone density,” says Warloski. “The goal should be to lift fairly heavy.” His clients regularly do hip hinges, squats, upper body push and pull workouts, core, and rotational work.

3. Pay Attention to Your Diet

In general, it’s vitally important to eat enough calories overall to keep your bones strong. But the quality of your diet also matters.

Foods high in calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin K have been shown to boost bone mineral density, according to the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation. On the flip side, eating plans, such as the keto diet, have been correlated with poor bone health.

To boost your intake of bone-healthy vitamins and minerals, focus on nutrient-rich foods such as leafy greens, legumes, yogurt, nuts, seeds, and canned fish.

Another surprising food source to boost bone health? Prunes. Researchers link consumption of this dried fruit with better bone mineral density and theorize that prunes have anti-inflammatory properties that help keep calcium levels high.

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