Health: Bad to the bone

Road cycling can harm your bones – here's how to keep them healthy

It’s official: cycling can harm your bones. But takethe rough with the smooth, says Neil Pedoe, there’s plenty you can do to keep them healthy

Cycling might be one of the best ways of improving your cardiovascular health, but a recent study has confirmed that if the only exercise you do is road cycling, you might well be putting yourself at risk of osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis, or porous bone, is a disease characterised by low bone mass and structural deterioration of bone tissue over time, leading to fragility and an increased risk of fractures of the hip, spine and wrist.

Cyclists are also at risk of osteopenia, or sub-normal bone density. A one percent decrease in density increases fracture risk by up to five percent.

The study, which appeared in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, compared the lower spine bone densities of a group of competitive male cyclists against a control group of moderately active men who did other sports. The cyclists had considerably lower spinal bone densities, despite having a greater calcium intake.

A similar study was published in the journal Metabolism in 2007, which compared road cyclists and runners between the ages of 20 and 59. It found that 63 percent of the cyclists had osteopenia of the spine or hip, compared with 19 percent of the runners.

Apparently, it’s the lack of impact in our sport that can lead to low bone density, especially in the lower back, which remains immobile and shock-free when riding on smooth roads. Ironically, cycling’s lack of impact is precisely what makes the sport so practicable for older riders.

The problem can be exacerbated by riders in hard training too, since they might not be eating enough and are burning up essential bone-building nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium with their hardcore training.

Play rough

It seems that cross-training is the key to a healthy bone mass, with running and ball sports being ideal.

“When it comes to bone health,” says Dr Claire Bowring of the National Osteoporosis Society, “cyclists need to add some weight-bearing exercise to their training.”

As an illustration, Dr Bowring went on to explain the effect of force on bone health in professional tennis players: “Players were found to have more than 25 percent higher bone density in their serving arm,” says Bowring. “But running, dancing or any exercise where you’re supporting the weight of your body helps build strong bones.”

Changes in bone density can develop over decades, but the early 20s for men – when most will consider themselves at the peak of their physical condition – are critical for achieving optimal bone mass.

But if you don’t like running or ball sports and you strictly won’t go dancing, there is another way of building up your bones. The answer lies in a previous study published in a 2002 issue of Bone magazine, which found that mountain bikers had considerably higher bone density than the sample road cyclists. It seems that bumpy trails will give your skeleton all the impact it needs to stimulate bone growth and it will improve your bike handling and recovery rate in leaps and bounds too.

Bone meals

Consume less:

  • Salt
  • Sugar: including refined or processed foods, which increase calcium excretion from the body and stimulate the adrenal glands
  • Red meat: too much protein won’t help build bone density
  • Carbonated soft drinks: phosphoric acid upsets the body’s calcium/phosphorous ratio, which stimulates release of the parathyroid hormone and reduces calcium uptake
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Caffeine: it reduces mineral absorption and stimulates adrenal glands

Eat more:

  • Dark green vegetables, berries and cherries, soy foods, sesame seeds, flaxseed, beans and pulses, canned oily fish and nuts – all of which are rich in nutrients that will support healthy bone growth.
  • For those particularly at risk or already suffering, nutritional supplements are a good idea and there are plenty of combined bone health formulas available. But make sure they contain a full spectrum of the following nutrients: calcium, magnesium, zinc, boron, silicon, vitamin D, vitamin K, B6, folic acid, B12 and vitamin C.
  • Phyto-oestrogen supplements can also be beneficial, including soy isoflavones, as well as the herbal medicines black cohosh and dong quai.

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