“Health…not merely the absence of disease”
The preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization states, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
I couldn’t agree more. And it is why I love sharing my passions for cycling and nature exploration with everyone I meet. Health is something that I continue to find on my bicycle, and it is increasingly being supported by scientific research.
In An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of The Immune System, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel relates a study published in 2018, which compared the immune systems of regular cyclists and more sedentary people between the ages of fifty-five and seventy-nine. The research found that “cyclists produced more new T cells from the thymus, and they had fewer cytokines that cause the thymus to decay.” One of the conclusions drawn from the study, according to Richtel, is that “Exercise slows the natural aging process of the immune system.”
It is always nice to hear that science supports cycling as one way to relieve stress and thereby to bolster the immune system, but even without talk of T cells, my intuition tells me that spending more time outside on my bike, in the company of other happy people, is a boon to health.
Bicycling = Wellness
Riding a bike always helps me get in touch with that feeling of freedom I first experienced as a kid, whether I was riding around town with a group of friends, or meandering along the road in a sliver of the late-day setting sun by myself, tinkering with my thoughts and watching the world go by in peace and relative solitude.
As an adult, though, I have found the key to health and wellness, not to mention freedom and autonomy, in the saddle of my bicycle. Whether a rusty old beach cruiser with a clanking chain, or a high-performance road bicycle with a computer on it, ticking off each second and mile as I pedaled, I have generally smiled more broadly, taken deeper breaths, and had a more noticeable sense of wellbeing on my bike.
I am a mix of the well-worn cyclist stereotypes: I ride to work in rolled-up jeans and dress shoes; I head to the beach or pond in sandals and swim trunks; and I’ll do a twenty-mile ride in spandex and bike shoes to get to the prison where I teach. The imperative towards creating odd fashion trends notwithstanding, riding my bicycle has been the most important key in my own pursuit of better health and wellness. Over time I have come to worry less about the type of riding I do, and more about the fact that getting on the bike and experiencing the beauty of the world is a source of healthfulness.
Cycling always helps me get in touch with the fundamental things that keep me happy, healthy, and connected to my community.
Connection is Key
Even in the sometimes cold, harsh winter weather in New England, I find cycling offers a healthful, spirit-nourishing alternative to being cooped up in a car. Sure, the automobile may seem more comfortable, but I have trained myself to seek out the reward of getting on my bike. Almost immediately a smile is on my face. I can feel my muscles engage, my heart pumps a bit faster, and I feel the whole-body nourishment that simply does not happen when I sit in a car.
For those in search of a reason to ride, bicycle tours offer a wonderful mix of comfort, guided support and adventure. Many companies leading bike tours today are in fact expanding upon a rich history. The history of the bicycle tour is in fact synonymous with the spirit of adventure that drove many 19th century bike tourists throughout the British and French countryside, as people sought more creative ways to engage in rejuvenating recreational activities.
Cycling is healthy because it exercises the body, yes, but the less-obvious benefits are conferred more subtly—in the slowness with which a rider moves, compared to a vehicle—and the ability to take in the world at that pace helps me feel more connected to nearly everything around me.
My senses are heightened—the songs of robins, starlings, sparrows, and the gentle drumming of woodpeckers becomes apparent—and the world gently opens itself to being noticed a bit more. I find myself taking deep breaths because I once again feel a sense of connection to my body, mind, and spirit.
I love the contrasts I experience on the bike. The world becomes easier for me to apprehend. I can see the pavement race by below me, the breeze lends a feeling of exhilaration, and I am fully engaged in controlling my machine, this simple yet amazing thing called a bike which makes me feel like I am almost flying!
Waiting to Exhale
As a friend of mine put it recently as I coaxed her along on a pleasure ride around our neighborhood, “I feel like I am six years old.” Joy—and the accompanying stress relief and immune-boosting benefits—should not only be the purview of the young.
The bonds I make on a bicycle, though sometimes hard to quantify and measure, are one of my favorite parts of being in the saddle. I smile at more people, and have more meaningful interactions as a result of bicycle riding. I often feel a tangible result—a noticeable decrease in stress. Feeling like I am more connected to my surroundings—through what I hear, feel, and see—embodies the idea of wellbeing articulated by the World Health Organization.
One of my favorite parts of cycling—I can’t believe I am writing this—is actually getting off of the bike! After several hours in the saddle, I feel more primed for rest, relaxation, and recharge. And, as Richtel notes in his book, stress, sleep and a healthy immune system are closely interconnected. He writes, “The body uses sleep to flush toxins from your brain. [It has] a broader immune system function [leading to] improved memory, cognition, mood [and] less inflammation”. When we get off the bike and exhale deeply, perhaps we pay a bit more attention to that little voice inside that tells us it’s time for our bodies to rest.
I may even stop in a park before getting home and simply sit and observe the world around me. I might do some people watching, take note of the sights and sounds of birds, the weather, or the feeling of how the air has changed as the sun has begun to set.
The Many Flavors of Biking Joy
Enjoying delicious, healthy food is part of the circle of happiness that I experience as part of my cycling diet. I tend to prefer healthy choices with a lot of vibrantly colored vegetables and whole grains to give my body a satisfying recovery. But after thirty-five miles on a bike there is simply nothing better than the taste of a local beer from a craft brewery, as guests on the Great Freedom Adventures’ Maritime Bike and Beer Tour can attest. Other culinary highlights of GFA tours include artisan-made cheese from Vermont farms, which is always a highlight for Vermont Bike Tour guests.
The post-ride dream snack to end an idyllic day on rustic roads ought to be a celebration of an accomplishment—to taking the initiative towards health, wellness, and a commitment to experiencing the beauty of our world.
I cannot think of a single time that I have stopped my car at a scenic overlook to take a few deep breaths and limber up my hamstrings, but after a good ride, it is a must for a happy body, mind, and good night’s sleep. Cycling invigorates me and makes me feel more in touch with my breath, muscles, and heartbeat; I find it easier to stretch. One of the coolest things about cycling—besides the fact that it gives us a bit more permission to strut around in brightly-colored spandex if we want—is that spontaneously stretching on the side of the road, or in a park, becomes a pretty normal thing to do!
Indeed, bicycle tours can improve your health and make you see things a bit differently, changing the way you perceive and experience the world. The takeaway, I think, is that taking a bike tour may not guarantee perfect health, but it will certainly get you traveling in the right direction. Get out there!
Post by Michael Urso
Great Freedom Adventures Tour Leader
Please share with anyone you know who is wanting to improve their health and stay healthy!