Looking after your joints through cycling

When hip or knee problems strike, it’s easy to exercise less for fear of doing more damage than good. However, cycling offers a great way to exercise and lose weight, which will actually do your joints some good rather than causing any damage. Not to mention the chance to enjoy the outdoors and an endorphin hit. 

Simply put, cycling is great for your joints because it is a non-impact form of exercise. This means there is no jolting of your joints, in contrast to running, which is a high-impact activity and puts greater strain on your joints. Football also has a higher risk of joint injury due to the amount of twisting and turning involved. 

Set yourself up for success

The only way cycling can damage your joints is if your seat is set too low. If you buy your bike from a specialist shop, they’ll adjust the seat for you to make sure it’s the correct height.

Getting the right frame size is also important to help get the right fit. Online calculators are available on many bike manufacturer websites. Simply enter your height, inner leg length and arm length in order to determine the right frame size to order.

Full bike fits are available, but for most types of cycling, simply adjusting the seat and checking your position in the saddle is sufficient.

There are also lots of different parts you can adjust yourself later if you don’t feel entirely comfortable on your bike – for example you can raise the height of the handlebars.

Why try cycling?

Cycling isn’t just a great way to exercise because it protects your joints, it’s also cost effective, flexible and social.

Flexibility

There are lots of different types of cycling: road, track, BMX and MTB (mountain biking). You can enjoy cycling around country roads, go off-road and experience jumps, ride on tracks or cycle paths — there is something for everyone.

If you have a disability, there are specialist bike shops that offer bikes tailored to your mobility needs. This includes tricycles if you have balance issues, electric bikes (ebikes) if you have muscle weaknesses or are elderly and hand bikes if you have lower body injuries.

Cost effectiveness

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get cycling. When you go to a bike shop, they’ll ask how much you want to spend. If your budget is at the lower end, you can still get a good quality bike, even if that means selecting a second-hand option. If you’re not sure about cycling regularly, you can hire a bike to try it out and see if you like it.

Social

Cycling is a very social form of exercise. You can cycle with friends and family or join a club where you can make new friends. Cycling clubs often have different bands for different cycling speeds and/or abilities, so you can cycle with people who are at your pace.

Cycling can also be a family event, with child seats, tag along bikes and tandems available.

Many bike trails have cafes where you can socialise with fellow cyclists and there are even tailored cycling holidays.

Which type of cycling is right for you?

If you’re after a full body workout then BMX or MTB may be right for you. MTB is harder than road or track cycling due to the rough terrain, which consequently works out your upper body as well as your lower body. With BMX and MTB cycling, you can get away from the cars, go at your own pace and enjoy jumps too. One hour on a BMX track is equally as hard as an hour spent in the gym.

If you’re looking for a gentler form of exercise, road biking is ideal and will give your legs a good workout. With an increasing number of cycling lanes, the risk of dealing with motor traffic is much reduced. Look locally for trails that are marked by the National Cycling Network. These may be on road, on designated cycle paths or a combination of the two.

If convenience is important, you can try static biking on a turbo or exercise bike at home or at the gym. You can still push yourself but in a safe environment. You can also change the resistance to tailor your ride to your specifications eg an easy flat ride, a fast sprint, a hilly climb etc.

Riding on a static bike doesn’t mean you have to go it alone either. With multiplayer online cycling apps you can cycle on your turbo bike with real people on virtual roads. The same applies with streaming cycling classes, where you can remotely follow a spin instructor.

How often should you cycle if you have joint problems?

If you have joint problems, exercise is recommended at least two to three times a week for around 30–45 minutes. Cycling is one of the best types of exercise for joint degeneration because it will tone your muscles, which help support your joints and therefore take some of the stress off them.

However, it is important not to overdo it with your exercise as this can wear your joints out. You don’t need to push yourself extremely hard. Although it is good to get your heart pumping from a heart-health point of view, when it comes to your joints and lower body workouts, steady exercise is all that is needed.

Remember, always make sure that you stretch your hamstrings before and after cycling, as cycling has a tendency to cause short hamstrings. With your stretches complete, you can then enjoy the health benefits and fun of cycling.

Author biography

Mr Andrew Lavender is a Consultant Knee Surgeon at Spire Manchester Hospital, specialising in robotic knee replacements, and total, partial and patellofemoral knee replacements. He treats knee ligament injuries and performs knee ligament reconstructions. He has extensive experience in meniscal and cartilage surgery. Adolescent knee injuries are becoming more common and he is one of only a few orthopaedic surgeons in Manchester who is able to operate on adolescent patients (12 years old and above) privately.