Who would have thunk! Enthusiastic bike riders can actually walk better than people who don’t ride, but prefer to walk.
Walkers have often seemed to have a sense of superiority out there on the trails: more aloof, more relaxed, more in control, more preened than puffed.
Now science has removed them from their pedestal, finding that those on the pedal can walk more efficiently when they also choose to walk.
All jokes aside, this news is important because it reinforces accumulating knowledge of just how beneficial bike riding is as you age.
Researchers at Humbolt State University in California have found that regular walking does not provide enough stimulus to the body to prevent the deterioration in walking ability that comes with age.
The research group already knew that runners were better at walking as they aged.
In the latest study they wanted to establish whether regular bike riding has the same effect.
They found that across a range of speeds, older bike riders had a 9-17% greater walking economy (efficient use of oxygen) compared with older walkers.
"In conclusion, bicycling exercise mitigates the age-related deterioration of walking economy, whereas walking for exercise has a minimal effect on improving walking economy,” they reported.
The decline of walking performance is a key determinant of morbidity among older adults—healthy older adults have been shown to have a 15-20% lower walking economy compared with young adults.
This rising inefficiency would make walking feel harder and more tiring, perhaps prompting older people to walk less, sit more and potentially become frail.
While we know that some exercise is better than none, and that we should ensure we keep walking as we age, science is telling us that mild exercise is insufficient if we want to have an extended and healthy old age.
Professor Justus Ortega says he suspects that more demanding exertions boosts the health and function of mitochondria inside muscle cells, improving how cells make and utilise energy.
He says that while any physical activity is worthwhile, pushing yourself a bit harder might yield lasting benefits for health and mobility.
Most of us will end up walking rather than riding at the end of our lives. But if we ride, that end will come later because we will be walking better and for longer when we can’t ride any more.
So stay on the bike, and keep tackling those hills. Puffing more now means and longer more enjoyable life before the inevitable, final breath expires.
The study was published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.
This article was made possible by the support of Bicycle Network's members who enable us to make bike riding better in Australia.