Outdoor Cycling: Benefits and What You Need to Know

family cycling outdoors

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Outdoor cycling is an excellent form of exercise, stress relief, and transportation. Taking your bike outside provides many benefits for physical and mental health.

Whether you bike outdoors to enjoy fresh air or use your bike for transportation and exercise combined, there are many reasons to use a bike consistently. Below, you will learn more about outdoor cycling, how it compares to indoor cycling as well as several benefits.

Outdoor Cycling vs. Indoor Cycling

Outdoor cycling is performed in the fresh air, on the streets, on pathways, or in wild spaces where biking is allowed. Indoor cycling can be done in your home, gym, or a group cycling class.

While outdoor cycling can be chosen as a method of transportation and way of getting outside and exploring nature, indoor cycling is performed solely for exercise. Some people also opt for indoor bikes if they do not own an outdoor bike, or if weather does not permit riding outside.

The bikes used are also different. Indoor cycling bikes having the option of upright or recumbent bikes and even those that are worked using your arms.

Benefits of Outdoor Cycling

Outdoor cycling is an excellent form of exercise and a pastime that improves physical and mental health. It's also a fantastic choice for the environment if you bike rather than drive to work or for errands. Here are some of the potential benefits of outdoor cycling.

Builds Muscular Endurance

Outdoor cycling works the muscles in your legs, including hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves, as well as your core, which includes your glutes, back, and abdominals. The muscle activation you experience is based on the terrain and how you use the bike, such as gear setting, body position, and speed.

If you use a mountain bike on hills and mountainous trails, the natural terrain creates a full-body workout. Riding up inclines challenge the leg muscles, and descending downhill engages the arm, shoulder, chest, back, and abdomen muscles.

Boosts Cardiovascular Health

Outdoor cycling is a form of cardiovascular exercise, which is associated with reduced risks for several chronic diseases and all-cause mortality. Cycling itself, even when only used as a method of transportation rather than intentional exercise, has been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness and reduce cardiovascular risk factors.

You can cycle outdoors to perform low, moderate, and vigorous-intensity activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity or a combination of the two.

Improves Mental Health

Physical activity and spending time outdoors are connected to better mental health. Outdoor cycling is a form of exercise that has been studied for its effect on improving cognitive function and mental well-being with positive results.

Research shows a beneficial impact of cycling outdoors on executive function and mental health. Researchers believe the combination of being outdoors and increased blood flow with exercise profoundly affects cognition and well-being.

Some research on those who have mental illness reveals that group outdoor cycling helped them in many ways. Outdoor cycling may support outdoor sensory experiences, build confidence, promote community, and provide "non-stigmatizing therapeutic relationships" according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Increases Functional Fitness

Outdoor cycling requires a substantial amount of stability and balance. Research shows that consistent outdoor cycling can increase your walking speed, balance, and stability, improving functional fitness levels.

Outdoor cycling improves your functional abilities as well by improving body composition. Cycling can increase the ratio of muscle mass to body fat levels, which leads to less risk of becoming frail and dependent as you age.

Meanwhile, mountain biking can improve coordination and proprioception as well as challenge decision-making skills due to the constantly changing terrain. Cycling up and down inclines in an off-road setting is highly demanding on the aerobic-anaerobic system while activating isometric contractions of arm and leg muscles to maintain control and stabilization of the bicycle. These factors lead to improved physical function and fitness.

Consider Active Commuting

Studies show that active commuting also lowers the risks for cardiovascular events, type-2 diabetes, and hypertension, and helps with healthy weight balance while boosting fitness levels.

Provides Low Impact Workouts

Although outdoor cycling can be physically demanding if you ride up hills or off-road, when cycling around the streets in your neighborhood or on flat paths, outdoor cycling provides an enjoyable low-impact workout.

For those with joint issues, cycling can be better than other forms of cardiovascular activity such as running since the fluid motion involved while supported by pedals is more joint-friendly. Research shows that outdoor cycling can reduce pain and stiffness and improve function in those with osteoarthritis.

What You’ll Need to Start Outdoor Cycling

To begin outdoor cycling, you'll need some equipment to keep safe and comfortable. Of course, you'll need a bike designed to handle outdoor terrain based on the areas you'll want to ride. Road bikes and mountain bikes differ, so consider what type of cycling you'll be doing before making a decision.

It can be helpful to go to a local bike shop when making your decision on what type of bike to purchase. They can advise you on the type of bike you need as well as provide tips on purchasing the correct size.

If you are a more mature bike rider, you might want to even discuss e-bikes. These types of bikes are growing in popularity—especially among more mature riders who might need a little assistance with pedaling when getting started.

You'll also need a helmet and lights for safety. In many areas, these are required by law. Regardless, it is wise to always wear a helmet and use lights to protect yourself while cycling outdoors.

Other gear you may want to consider include specific cycling shoes or athletic shoes, and proper attire such as padded bike shorts, reflective wind-proof jackets, sunglasses, sweat-wicking tops and shorts, and biking gloves.

Keep in mind that cycling outdoors does come with risks of accidents and traffic can be an issue if you are riding on streets. Be sure to follow the traffic laws, particularly those that apply to cyclists. New riders also should seek out well-traveled routes. Local bike clubs can help you find the routes and provide additional safety tips and guidelines.

A Word From Verywell

Outdoor cycling is an excellent way to get some fresh air and exercise at the same time. This combination is powerful for improving physical and mental health. You will boost your heart, brain, muscles, and endurance while cycling. Be sure to research the best equipment to keep you safe and enjoying your new hobby.

If you are new to outdoor cycling, talk to a healthcare provider before beginning. They can assess your medical history and fitness level and make recommendations on how to begin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is harder indoor or outdoor cycling?

    Indoor and outdoor cycling can both be challenging forms of exercise depending on the type of training, speed, and terrain. Mountain biking is extremely challenging and works your anaerobic system and muscles intensely.

  • Which is safer running or cycling?

    Running and cycling outdoors both have risks. It's vital to ensure you follow road safety rules and guidelines, wear reflective materials, and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

  • Is it OK to bike everyday?

    It is OK to bike everyday, especially if you use it as a form of transportation. If your cycling endeavors include high intensity or prolonged training, it is best to plan in rest days so you can recover.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.