Another brick in the wall of cycling’s myriad benefits has just been laid, with a new study showing that middle-aged cyclists display better “muscle composition” and a greater “overall muscle mass” than untrained individuals.
Great news. The catch is that the men in the ‘cyclist’ group of the study had all cycled at least 7,000km in the previous 12 months and, on average, had been training for the last 15 years - so perhaps something to take into consideration before middle-age creeps up…
But what’s particularly interesting about this study is that instead of focusing on the cardiovascular benefits of cycling - which M. A. Belzunce et al, says has been “extensively proved” - the aim here was to “quantify the benefits of cycling in terms of muscle health”. So let’s unpack that aim a little bit.
Firstly, it is well established that, as we age, our muscle mass and function are both progressively lost. To combat this, the general advice is to build strength training exercises into your cycling training plan - and that goes for everyone, young or old. In younger people it helps to slow these changes, in older people it helps to mitigate the losses.
The point of this study was to examine just how much of a difference cycling - an ostensibly endurance-based activity - actually makes to the muscle health of middle-aged men. Could this sport stand to offer an even broader range of benefits than we previously thought?
Well, as ever, it is important to keep things in perspective. This wasn’t a particularly large study. With just 28 participants in the cyclist group and 28 in the physically inactive group, a single study of this size is an important data point, but it’s never going to be conclusive.
Secondly, as the two groups were selected based on their physical activity, there wasn’t a control group and there could well be other factors at play - those two groups do lead very different lifestyles, after all.
Another limitation is that the muscle samples were only taken of gluteal muscles - the results of these might not be so representative of the state of upper body muscle groups, such as the biceps or pectorals. It may be that cycling isn’t sufficient for full-body muscle health.
Still, keeping all that in mind, the study did observe that “well-trained midlife recreational cyclists had lower levels of fat infiltration and greater muscle mass for the two main gluteal muscles when compared to physically inactive individuals of the same age”.
And this does suggest that, in addition to other established benefits, “cycling could help preserve muscle health in middle-aged men” - it just might take rather a lot of it over a long period of time.
For advice on how to adapt your cycling training as you head into your 40s, 50s and beyond, check out our guide on how to stay fit as you age.
And if you're looking for some motivation to hit 7,000km of riding in 12 months like the cyclists in the study, how about signing up to Cycling Weekly's annual 5,000 mile (8046km) riding challenge and let us, and a community of like-minded individuals, help inspire you to ride further than before. You can find out more and join the CW5000 over here.
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