Cycling for health

Many of you who are reading this have suffered or are suffering back pain.

Many of you are potential cyclists, wanting to get fit and be healthy, but are unsure of the correct posture or how cycling directly helps the spine. It is well established that cycling is beneficial to one’s health.  

For example, cycling is one of the best ways for people to achieve good health and fitness.

No matter if they are already active in sport or want to become more fit, cycling regularly to work (and, by extension, to school and on other regular journeys) has been shown to be the most effective thing an individual can do to improve health and increase longevity, and this applies even to people who are already active in sport and other physical activities [1]
Cyclists typically have a level of fitness equivalent to being 10 years younger*, as cycling benefits the muscles, skeletal system, and immune system. A UK parliamentary health committee has noted: “If the Government were to achieve its target of trebling cycling in the period 2000-2010 … that might achieve more in the fight against obesity than any individual measure we recommend within this report.” [2]
But how does this relate to the back? Physical activity in general has particularly positive effects on osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and lower back pain. Cycling is quite beneficial for the back, especially the lower back: “Posture when cycling is optimum, and the cyclic movement of the legs stimulates muscles in the lower back, where slipped discs are most likely to occur. In this way the spine is strengthened and secured against external stresses. In particular cycling can stimulate the small muscles of the vertebrae which are difficult to affect through other exercise. This can help reduce the likelihood of back pains and other problems.”[3]
It might even be a good idea to cycle to the chiropractic since the exercise would warm your muscles and limber your vertebrae for a good adjustment session! Your chiropractor will also tell you, that cycling is as good for your hip, knee and ankle joints as it is for the spine. This is due to the constant circular and “sliding” movement in these joints during cycling as oppose to a vertical hard impact during running or jumping. Circular joint movements are more natural and help to restore suppleness and lubrication of the joints without damaging the cartilage.

Correct Cycling Posture

Of course, as noted, posture is important. I found some valuable tips from Lance Armstrong’s website:
Riding a bike can be an hours-long activity for many people, particularly individuals riding road bikes. This can be a good approach to fitness and overall physical health when all parts of you are functioning properly. But the back is one area of the body that can be very susceptible to developing problems resulting from long bike rides. In order to avoid these back problems, a specific riding style must be adopted that practices proper riding posture. This posture can alleviate back pain and prevent other problems from developing when used correctly.

Step 1

Mount your bicycle with one foot on the pedals and the other foot on the ground to steady you. Hold both ends of the handlebars with your hands. If your elbows are slightly bent and your hands rest on the handlebars or brakes without having to stretch to reach them, your handlebars are in the correct position. However, if you feel you are reaching too far to reach the handlebars, consider moving your seat forward or lowering your handebars. If your back arches into a “C” to reach the handlebars, you may need to lower or move back your bike seat.

Step 2

Place your feet on the pedals slightly below the pad of your foot that rests underneath your toes. This area is known as the metatarsal arch. When your foot is placed properly, your alignment should be correct at your knees and hips, which then leads to correct positioning of the back. Without proper foot placement, you may experience knee and lower back pain, according to Dr. Troy Smurawa, a contributor to Beginner Triathlete.

Step 3

Arch your back so that it curves upward toward the sky and resembles a bridge. Some people relax their stomach muscles and cause the back to droop between the hips and shoulders, and this can cause back pain and other problems. Arching creates cushioning between the segments of the spine, working as shock absorbers.

Step 4

Bend your elbows slightly so that they can shift and move as needed while riding the bike. An elbow that is locked into a position can transfer energy and shocks up through the body and into the back. Bending your elbow uses it as a shock absorber.

Step 5

Adjust your shoulders slightly forward to where your shoulders help to support the weight of your chest. This takes the pressure off your collar bones and spine and places it on the muscles in your body, which are much more resilient and less likely to develop long-lasting pain that inhibits your ability to ride. This position will also help to take pressure off your neck, wrists and hands by distributing the weight more evenly.

Step 6

Lift your head forward just enough that you can see the road ahead of you. Lifting the head too much can cause strain to your body and especially neck and shoulders, but you also want to be able to see what’s coming up.

This and That

This might be a ‘no-brainer’, but make sure your bike frame isn’t too small or too big for you! There isn’t an easy way to size this anymore, according to Bike Guru Sheldon Brown, however how I generally can tell is based on the top bar of the bike frame. If it’s too small you will feel/look cramped on the bike and if it’s too big you’ll be extending uncomfortably for the brake levers. I myself have ridden a slightly too-big frame and after many miles of riding could feel strain on my lower back! The main area where cycling injuries occur (not counting athlete or endurance cycling) are with the knee.

The most important factor is Inside Leg lenght(inseam). Wrong measuring may lead to the wrong frame size. So here are a few tips: The best way to do it is to undress (baggy or wide cut trousers, shoes cause mistakes) and find the highest possible crotch position. Measure the distance from the thighest possible crotch positionto the ground.

In general you can choose your frame size using a simple formula:

Classic frame size = Inside Leg Size (cm) x 0.67
Sloping (ladies) frame size = Inside Leg Size (cm) x 0.58

This guide is only good for road racers and requires a calculator along with a tape measure.

If you want to choose a Hybrid or a Road cruiser, please use a table below.

Rider Height Inside Leg Suggested Frame size
ft & inch cm inch +/- 1 cm +/- 2.5 inch cm
5.0+ 152 28 71 15 38
5.2+ 157 28 71 16 41
5.4+ 162 29 74 17 43
5.6+ 167 29 74 18 46
5.8+ 172 30 76 19 48
5.9+ 175 30 76 20 51
5.10+ 177 31 79 21 53
6.0+ 182 33 84 22 56
6.2+ 187 34 86 23 58

Measuring the frame size.

If you buy your frame in a shop, you may take the given frame size as true, however, if need to measure an existing bicycle, the most common method is to measure from the middle of the crank to the top of the middle frame tube as shown on the image below:
Knee injuries…

…appear to be a particular problem where the knee joint has been under high stress in cycling. It can occur among new recreational riders but this is usually because they make errors using their bike by setting the saddle too low and the gears too high. These mistakes cause excessive pressure on the patellofemoral joint. Getting a better fitting bicycle and saddle, adjusting the saddle properly, and using lower gears helps reduce such problems.

Avoiding back pain

If you are a back pain suferer, bicycles with combination of saddle suspension and front wheel suspension are recommended to minimise shocks and bumps to your spine, I wouldn’t recommend a full front and rear suspension, because an additional suspension makes them much heavier to ride.

Easy ride

Bycicle with slicker tyres are easier to ride in town due to lesser effort required, some people believe however that tyres with coarse tread are more safe and have more grip on the road. Professional cyclists know, that slick tyres are better and safer because they have better grip due to increased surface area.

Glass on the road

It is also advisable to invest in a pair of tyres with a Kevlar lining to avoid punctures and carry with you a small pump, spare inner tube and a set of levers to be able to change inner tube on the side of the road if you have a puncture. I add to that a pair of rubber gloves  to keep my hands clean. After 2 or 3 punctures you will be changing an inner tube in no more than 5 minutes. We don’t want you to carry your bike, it’s much better the other way around!

More advice

If you’re already riding but experience specific pain issues, Sheldon Brown has loads of advice on adjustments you can make to your bicycle. Bike shops should be able to give proper advice as well. Also, I don’t know much about them but I hear recumbent bikes (the kind you sit down in and lay back) are quite good because they place less strain on the back and the knees, and also have a great turning capability at high speeds (again, just what I’ve heard!). The first cyclist I saw on a recumbent was an older man in his 60’s or 70’s!

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Risk on the road

Furthermore, cycling in London is in some ways a big issue due to the growing numbers of cyclists on the streets but the continued (though decreasing in proportion) cyclist deaths on the roads mainly due to HGVs.

I would like to note here the statistics put forward by the Bicycle Helmets Research Organisation: “The health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks**perhaps by 20 to 1 according to one estimate*** They also state that cycling becomes even safer when more people are on the road cycling: “or a doubling in cycle use, risk decreases by a third [4] [5].”

Our neighbours in Australia had very similar resultswhen looking at cycling safety. Getting Australia Moving report and the presentation of the National Bicycling Achievement Awards was held on the 4th of June 2008 in Canberra, where the risk of cycling was estimated as follows: “The perception of risk from cycle accidents is often disproportionate to the actual risk. However, perceptions of risk were found to decrease with cycling experience. Whilst acknowledging the legitimate concerns people have to bicycle riding, the evidence demonstrates that in Australia, per 100,000 participants, an individual is seven times more likely to be hospitalised playing football than riding a bicycle.

Risk-benefit analyses consistently report that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by factors ranging from five to one, to twenty to one. Another consistent feature in the literature is the robust finding that the more cyclists there are, the safer it becomes.

In fact, if cycling doubles, the risk per kilometre falls by 34%” [6]

Minimising risk while cycling in London

These tips make the roads safer for you, and for other people. Novice and experienced cyclists alike can learn a lot from cycle training, so contact your local council to ask about free or subsidised lessons:

  • Be extra careful near large lorries The majority of cyclist fatalities involve HGVs. Read our four steps toward safer riding around lorries.
  • Cycle away from parked cars Being car ‘doored’ is one of the most common causes of cycling crashes, and if struck you’re in danger from behind run over by cars behind you. Always ride at least a metre, if not more, away from parked cars so you can avoid doors opening in your path.
  • Beware of fast-moving traffic Motorbikes and scooters often go much faster than other road users. They can come up behind you very quickly, so always check behind you before moving sideways, even within your own lane.
  • Take special care at junctions Most crashes happen at junctions so take extra care, especially when there are multiple lanes and vehicles are moving fast.
  • Don’t use poor cycle lanes or tracks Cycle lanes (part of the roadway) or cycle tracks (segregated) can increase safety, but many in London are of poor quality: too short, give way to side streets, too narrow, put you in an unsafe riding position, blocked by parked cars or rubbish, and so on. Don’t see them as an automatic route to reducing risk.
  • Be an assertive cyclist You have the same right to use the streets as other road users. It’s safer to ride at least a metre from the kerb or parked cars so you can avoid opening car doors, and you’re more visible to other road users, such as those pulling out from side roads or approaching from behind.
  • Try to make eye contact Make positive eye contact with other road users, including those who might turn into your path from side roads, and those driving behind you, or when you’re waiting at traffic lights. Don’t be afraid to smile, and be sure to thank people when they’re courteous.
  • Use appropriate hand signals It’s safer, and good manners, to signal when turning in the vicinity of other road users, including other cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Be considerate to people on foot Slow down and give pedestrians lots of space on shared paths, where they always have priority. When cycling along busy streets, go at a speed that’ll allow you to avoid someone who steps off the pavement into your path.
  • Use lights at night It’s a legal requirement to use lights at night; also consider wearing light or high-visibility clothing or adding reflective material to your bike or luggage.
  • Take extra care in bad weather Allow extra room to manoeuvre or stop, and give other road users extra space as they might need more braking time and have reduced visibility.
  • Don’t ride through red lights or on pavements This can be hazardous or frightening to others, as well as being a potential danger to yourself and against the law. Not least, this is a major source of conflict with other road users, and unfairly presents cyclists as frequent lawbreakers.
  • Don’t use your phone on your bike Using a mobile phone cycling distracts your attention from the road, which is dangerous for you and other road users.
  • Carry baggage sensibly Consider buying panniers, a rack, basket or a rucksack: dangling shopping from handlebars or carrying bags under one arm makes it riding risky.
  • Look after your bike Check your tyre pressure and brakes regularly. Contact your local group to find out about maintenance courses near you or contact us to organise a Dr Bike for your workplace, school or community group
  • Communicate calmly If another road user’s actions cause you alarm, by all means explain this to them when it’s safe to do so, but do it in a reasonable manner. If you shout at them angrily, they won’t listen. 

Please leave your comments below or email us. Thanks for visiting!


This article is written by Alicia Ng who works as an environmental consultant and lives in Hackney, North London.

An avid cyclist, she volunteers regularly as a bike mechanic at the 56a bikespace in Walworth, London.

Apart from cycling, she also maintains her health by receiving maintenance care from Dr. Vasily DC and keeping to a vegan/vegetarian diet.

Alicia Ng

Cycling sites with further info:


* Tuxworth W et al. Health, fitness, physical activity and morbidity of middle aged male factory workers. British Journal of Industrial Medicine vol 43. pp 733-753, 1986.

** British Medical Association. Cycling: towards health and safety. Oxford University Press, 1992

*** Hillman M. Cycling and the promotion of health. PTRC 20th Summer Annual Meeting, Proceedings of Seminar B, pp25-36, 1992

Pictures with thanks to: