Breaking Bones in the Virtual World of Cycling

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Adam Upshaw

The potential tendency for cyclists to develop brittle bones, or worse, osteoporosis, can be avoided by following these tips.

Does cycling on your trainer for hundreds of miles a month reduce your risk of developing the debilitating bone condition osteoporosis? 

I should be clear from the get-go that any form of exercise and physical activity will offset the risk of developing most musculoskeletal related disorders. Unfortunately, it is not a simple cause and effect equation in the case of cycling and skeletal health, however.  Riding more doesn’t mean that our bones will be stronger.  In fact, it is quite the contrary!

A recent study of master cyclists showed that, when compared with healthy men, matched for age and body weight, the master cyclists had lower bone mass density (BMD) at the hip and spine.

Of the master cyclists, 67% had low BMD at either or both the hip and the spine, 52% were osteopenic, and 15% were osteoporotic. 

The Link Between Low Mineral Bone Density and Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition that develops due to long-term low bone mineral density (BMD), whereby weight bearing bones, primarily, are susceptible to damage.  Low BMD can be considered the middle ground between normal bone health and the chronic condition of osteoporosis. Unfortunately, the undeniable and unavoidable process of ageing naturally results in a reduction in BMD, similar to what occurs with muscle loss (sarcopenia).  

a cup of milk

Being a nutritionist, I would like to believe that food habits have a predominant role in bone health (and muscle health for that matter), but the evidence overwhelmingly supports the notion that exercise is the prime stimulus for musculoskeletal health and fitness. 

 

Cycling May Not Be the Right Kind of Stimulus

Contrary to popular belief, cycling alone has not been shown to greatly offset low BMD. In other words, cycling has very little osteogenic benefit for endurance athletes who engage in cycling primarily.  Cycling has very little impact on bone remodeling, and in turn, bone health as we age.

 

High Volume Cyclists Tend to Have Poor BMD 

Anderson (2018) and Omedillas (2012) noted that cycling does stress leg muscles, which in turn ‘pull’ on bones, however it does not substantially increase the physiological bone remodeling mechanism. 

Also, high volume cyclists are notorious for doing very little strength training, especially for the lower body, for fear of adding too much muscle mass which could potentially make them ‘heavier’.  Another reason, as all know, is that ‘leg days’ seem like every day already! 

Further, endurance cyclists are often guilty of consuming too little calories for the amount of energy expended, which itself can negatively impact the remodeling process of our bones.

In addition, endurance exercise leads to hormonally mediated suppression of bone turnover by directly decreasing bone promoting hormone synthesis and secretion and indirectly through energy deficits created.

two dumbbells set on a street

Of course, cyclists are not doomed to collapse when they hit 70 years old!  There are many preventive strategies to undertake. As noted, the ageing process will lower your BMD but we can flatten the curve.
(Do we all hate that term these days or what?)

Strengthen your Bones With These Tips

It is imperative to add some lower body (upper body wouldn’t hurt either) strength training sessions into your weekly programming. It certainly does not have to be much.  Just a few days a week would help tremendously.  

One or two days of plyometrics or weight lifting, or both, will strengthen your bones and actually also positively impact cycling performance. Ideally, you are looking for high load (i.e. intensity) vs. high reps, as we don’t need to fatigue the legs any more than we have to!

From the nutrition side of things, the obvious consideration is to make sure you are eating enough food to meet the demands of your daily energy expenditures

It is important to avoid chronic low energy availability as much as possible, so try and pay attention to your hunger cues and follow them.

Bone health is also dependent upon a sufficient supply of micronutrients, including vitamin D (and no…vitamin D is not the holy grail of supplements) and calcium. This is not to say you need a supplement, but rather that you need to be assured that you are consuming enough foods rich in calcium, like chickpeas, dark leafy greens, calcium set tofu, and dairy products. 

 

Conclusion

Endurance cycling offers many health and psychological benefits, but it can have detrimental consequences on your skeletal system if not done properly. As far as BMD is concerned, my advice to all my virtual cycling compatriots…go lift and eat something!

 

Your thoughts?

Were you aware that as a cyclist you may be at risk for low bone mass?  If no, does it make you rethink your motivation for weight training and other weight bearing exercise?

For more great articles on how you can harness the power of proper nutrition to improve your cycling performance check out the Nutrition page on The ZOM!

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Rob
Rob
1 month ago

Having recently broken a bunch of bones in a bike crash, I’ve started lifting as well. At what age does BMD normally become a problem?

Adam
Adam
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

Hey Rob – great question. Generally bone mineral density becomes an issue around the 3rd decade of life with a steady downward trend in density as you get older. So it is crucial to minimize that loss by one, strengthening those bones with exercise and good food when your young to have a strong base but also, continue these practices throughout life to minimize this downward trajectory. The strength training you are doing is a great way to do that! Adequate calcium, vit d and vegetables/fruit , you know the usual, also help greatly.

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