Cycling can lead to bone health problems: This blog explains the issues and offers some solutions
June 22, 2018
Although competitive road cycling is excellent for cardiovascular (CV) fitness, it is less than optimal for building bone health. Cycling is a non-weight bearing type of exercise, as is swimming, so does not provide much osteogenic (bone building) stimulus. The additional element in road cycling is that, in the short term, low body weight, with associated low body fat, confers a performance advantage. However this can lead to restrictive nutrition and energy deficiency, that have adverse effects on health and performance, over the longer term.
When runners and cyclists were matched for age and body weight, there were no significant differences in hormone or nutrition status, yet cyclists were 7 times more likely to have osteopenia of the lumbar spine than runners. Swimmers often have further problems as they often lack the Vitamin D levels due to the amount of indoor training.
In addition to the non-load bearing nature of cycling on the skeleton, restrictive nutrition can contribute to suboptimal bone health. Reducing energy availability by restricting energy intake whilst increasing training load can be a strategy, especially during pre-season training to reduce body weight and body fat. Essentially, cycling up a steep incline demands less power through the pedals if your body weight is low. Furthermore, with long training rides on the bike it can be physically and practically difficult to fuel effectively .
The psychological element of disordered eating has been described amongst elite level cyclists. Cyclists, in particular, collect many metrics associated with training and racing which could be a manifestation of a drive to perfectionism. Even starting off with good intentions can lead to problems which can become detrimental to health and performance with exclusion of food groups such as carbohydrates.
Exclusively practising a non-weight bearing sport such as cycling although great for CV fitness, is not so good for bone health. Potentially injury is more likely infalls from the saddle, which occur both in training and competition even for the most experienced cyclist. What are the solutions for the cyclist to support favourable body composition and bone health, which ultimately also optimises performance?
What can you do about it?
Apart from genetics, which account for up to 50 per cent of our bone health, lifestyle factors spell the difference between a healthy, strong skeleton and weak, fracture-prone bones.
We have the capacity to change these factors; building a strong skeleton is largely down to what we eat, and how we move. The message is clear: once you hit your 30s, you need to be proactive in looking after your bones.
- Getting enough calcium is one of the most important factors affecting bone health. If calcium is in short supply, the body ‘steals’ it from the skeleton — the main storage site.
- Dairy-based sources are best, as the body absorbs around 30-35 per cent of the calcium from milk, versus around five per cent from that found in green vegetables.
- Vitamin D is another key player, helping the body to absorb calcium efficiently. Because most of our vitamin D comes from the action of sunlight on the skin, deficiency is common between April and October.
- Aside from diet, exercise is the best way to maintain bone density; specifically, weight-bearing activity to stimulate the growth of new bone tissue. This may mean include looking at exercises such as running or recreational ball or racquet sports to supplement your cycling.