Is it healthier to sit on the couch or to ride a bike?

July 3, 2009

I came across this article in the New York Times and felt an immense amount of frustration which I felt the need to vent out here. If you can’t be bothered to click on the link and read the article, in a nutshell it discusses whether bicycling is bad for your bones. This debate has risen as a result of a number of studies which suggest that competitive bikers have a lower bone density than the average person.

To me this has the same sort of ring to it as the old “bananas are really high in sugar so you should limit your intake of them”. Yes, if you eat five bananas a day, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but really you’re better off eating a couple extra bananas than you are eating junk food. I know of people who will choose sugar-free packaged foods over a banana and think that they are doing their health a favor by choosing an item with less or no sugar in it. I’m doubtful it’s a healthy choice to make.

Considering how much bad food we eat, and how little we exercise, why are we concerning ourselves and wasting time and money with conducting studies saying we shouldn’t eat as much healthy food or shouldn’t compete in certain sports?

Okay, so that’s not really what the article is trying to imply, I’m sure. But it still bothers me. Because I know that there are many people out there who will jump on something like this and use it as an excuse why they shouldn’t exercise or eat healthy.

I think that once you’re eating quite healthy and exercising regularly, then these studies are things that you should maybe think about. I didn’t start to cut back on my excessive carrot intake until my skin started turning orange. Why is that? Because eating a few too many carrots is better than eating a bag of chips or drinking a can of Coke. I don’t eat quite so many carrots these days and I instead am eating more vegetables with a variety of nutrients so that I’m not having an overabundance of vitamin A. My skin has turned a normal, non-orange color as a result, too.

Something that I did find interesting in this article which I was not previously aware of is that a possible reason for the skeletal damage in competitive cyclists is because they sweat so much, and we lose calcium through sweat (although that makes perfect sense, come to think of it, that we’d be losing nutrients other than electrolytes from sweating). But part of this doesn’t really make sense: don’t competitive runners sweat just as much as competitive cyclists? Yet it is bicycling, rather than other endurance sports, which appears to be correlated to a loss in bone density. We also have to remember that there could be many, many factors involved which could all be possible reasons for bone damage.

What do you think? Is there a point to these kinds of studies? Does it just encourage people to fall back on junk food because they already know full well that it’s bad for them? These sorts of research are a good reminder that moderation is key… but I still believe that the majority of us should be more concerned with cutting back on the junk and increasing the exercise than worrying about not eating certain fruits or not engaging in certain activities.

Don’t forget to answer this month’s poll!


  1. ok
    you lost me and had me at SKELETAL DAMAGE!!

    I had no clue either—off to read your link.

  2. Honestly? I’m done for a while with studies and articles and books, on both exercise and nutrition. So many of the creators have an agenda and I don’t have time to sort it all out.

    I agree with you COMPLETELY in that moderation is the key for most of us. Until we become competitive cyclists or anything else, simply choosing the “better” option, if not the “best”, is an improvement. 🙂

  3. Hey Sagan,
    Well…I’m a biker…so I suppose I’m doomed now???

    I don’t think so.

    I’ll still choose the healthy extreme over the opposite. Not to say that we can’t go to extremes, and that’s too much. But really, isn’t it that way with most things (like carrots…I did that once too!). So – in that sense – I don’t see the purpose of the study – really, you could probably do a study of whatever you wanted to disprove – and find a way if you looked hard enough.

    Good job calling this one out…

  4. It’s amazing (and sad) that these studies even receive money for funding the research. I’m with you that moderation is key – end of story 🙂

  5. Let’s talk about you turning orange. Way more interesting than the bike study!!!! =) I eat tons of carrots too. No orange yet however!

  6. I’m with you–I think the reporting of these studies leads people to throw their hands up and say “what’s the point?” and give up on reasonable exercise. It’s frustrating.

  7. Interesting….I’m pretty sure science can skew anything to be bad for you in some way or other. It all depends on how you look at the numbers.

    What the article did not emphasize was how significant the bone loss was (negligible for most people), if this is common in other sports (swimming comes to mind…), and the fact that biking is better than no exercise at all! As the article states (although hidden at the very end, at the point where most people have stopped reading), bone loss from biking can be remedied by adding a little bit of weight bearing activities to a cyclists workout routine.

    Just another article trying to needlessly sensationalize fitness research….

  8. All I can say is AMEN SISTER! Seriously, I agree with you 100%. I hope everyone hears this and listens.

  9. I do agree with your argument. How about those drugs that make your eye lashes grow longer and thicker? Now THAT’s a waste of a good scientist, and good money.

    As for the biking and bone density issue, it’s because biking doesn’t invovle any impact on the ground. Running is better for your bones because it’s a “weight bearing” exercise. So I think what they are saying is that not only is biking a non weight bearing exercise, but then you sweat a lot, so those two together might not be advantageous to your bones. These studies are actually important because if I wanted to prevent osteoporosis, but wanted to bike for the rest of my life, I’d want to know that biking may not be the best exercise for my long-term goal!

    Either way, biking, and BANANAS are two healthy parts of a well-balanced diet and lifestyle!

  10. Interesting! One of the reasons I like my old cruiser style bike is that I am standing half the time when I ride it. It’s almost the same as being on the stairmaster 🙂

  11. As a person that has listened waaayy to much to studies like this. I have learned to take them with a grain of salt or better yet tune them out. Next week a new study will tell us why cycling is an excellent way to exercise and why walking is now bad for us! I have decided that I have to do what I will do. Meaning the best time to exercise is the time that I will do it and the best type of exercise for me to do is the one that I WILL do!

    I find these studies very frustrating and costly..we have people that are starving and don’t have anyplace to live, but at least we now know that competitive bicyclists need to take more calcium!

  12. MizFit- I know, right?!

    Cammy- you nailed it with “So many of the creators have an agenda”.

    Lance & VeggieGirl- absolutely! Studies are easy to skew and twist so that you get the results you’re looking for.

    Jennifer Allwood- I really should have taken a before and after picture of the orange skin 😉

    Lisa & Charlotte- it’s SO frustrating!

    RickiRae- you said it all.

    Gina- thanks for clearing that up about the running vs. biking; that makes much more sense. And drugs that make your eyelashes grow longer and thicker?! Off to Google…

    Dr. J- heh nice. The cruiser style bikes are the best anyway 🙂

    Natalia- no kidding. Just shaking my head over here at the total waste that these studies are.

  13. Methinks that, as with everything else in life, moderation is the key to all things. Anything taken to the extreme is going to be detrimental, I don’t care what it is!

  14. Oh Sagan, I so thoroughly agree. All of this nonsense is just confusing the general public when what they really should be focusing on is eating healthful whole foods and simply moving whenever possible!

  15. Great post, Sagan! I didn’t read the article, but I suspect that it’s less that the research was bad and more that it was misinterpreted by the media. It’s a lot more sensational to suggest that maybe you should be a couch potato rather than ride a bike – even if we all know that just isn’t true. Knowing that competitive biking might lead to bone density loss is probably a good thing as competitive bikers can focus on what they need to do to reverse the bone loss. I would guess that sitting on the couch more isn’t one of their solution! 😉

  16. Interesting. I too dislike studies like this mostly because they are usually done with elite or at least very, active cyclists, then the articles written about it are always “Bike And You Will Ruin Your Bones” or the like. It always takes it out of context and then normal people see a bit of it and forever have in their mind if they bike they will have low bone density and skeletal damage. FAIL all around.

  17. “I know of people who will choose sugar-free packaged foods over a banana and think that they are doing their health a favor by choosing an item with less or no sugar in it.”
    -This is so sad.

    Eat Healthily + Exercise Regularly = Good Health
    No need to waste money on studies to prove this, right?

  18. Interesting – I hadn’t heard this!

    I’d love to read the article you linked to, but who has the time, what with all the bicycling and banana eating I do…

  19. Hey Cathy! Loved your post on how the media distorts the well intended research. I totally agree. There should be no need to over sensationalize the bad stuff, although I can see how the negative spin draws in the readers…

  20. Reading your headline I thought “Surely it depends on how often you fall off?”

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  21. Bag Lady- I’m leaning towards that frame of thought, too.

    Danielle, Cathy & RickiRae- and the general public is SO QUICK to jump onto these kinds of things. Sighs.

    Mary- fail indeed!

    Mia- precisely.

    Kimberly- I’m with you 🙂

    Mary Anne- the couch or the bike? 😉

  22. Isn’t it amazing that these things actually come up? America is as obese and unhealthy as ever and we’re publishing things to keep people from exercising. CRAZY!! Good for you for pointing it out!!!

  23. Wow, what a ridiculous study! Seriously, who funds this pointless research?!?!? what are they trying to prove? I thin maybe they’re just trying to excuse their own unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles. Pointless! Any study that would remotely hint that being sedentary is better than being active is dismissed in my view. Plus, when you actually read the methodology, most of these studies are biased, and compare average people with people in unhealthy behavioral extremes. Like the one where you shouldn’t drink more than 4 litters of water a day because some guys died in a study: yes, he died because he drank 10 litters in 1 hour or something! Hahaha this gets me a bit angry and frustrated too, especially because I know it excuses unhealthy habits in people, reinforces them, if you will.

  24. I would have assumed that it’s because it’s not a weight bearing exercise, never thought of sweating away calcium. Aren’t there other sports where people sweat? Maybe I should find out whether the same can be said for swimmers, that’s not weight bearing either, and I don’t think swimmers sweat (though I could be surprised on this one)

  25. Stupid people fall for that “biking isn’t good”, the company that promoted the research gets money to probably create stupid things like magic pills to lose weight vs. exercise, said stupid people then buy the companies magic pills, company gets more $$. arrrgggghhhh

    I am an avid fan of research- I analyze it all the time and want to work in that field. Unfortunately as you mentioned in other words, research requires funding ( the creators). Funds are given by big wig companies that want return in support. Its sad that the research out there is a result of what society will buy. We consumers do ultimately drive the industry.

    The government funds companies like General Mills, People eat General Mills cereals, government is happy & GM gets money, giving their other varities of cereals ( sugar filled smack pops) more money to advertise to kiddos while the same company that owns the crap ALSO owns the Organic “healthy” varieties like Cascadian Farms. Hence, organic industry gets fed.

    Its all just a “what can you do for me” type of world no matter what the subject is. Its a shame. We could do research on more important things, but those things often require more money, better equipment, smarter people and its sad there aren’t more of all of those resources for the better research to occur.

  26. Healthy Ashley- where, indeed, are we headed?

    Marta- anything can be twisted in a study.

    Julie- evidently more investigation is needed 🙂

    bHealthier- adore your thoughts on this and the rant. We need to get together for a good ranting session.

  27. It’s sad that we have these ridiculous articles out there because it takes away from the ones that are truly informative and educational. What’s worse is some people may be persuaded to abstain from exercising because of some of these articles. I try to take the ones I read with a grain of salt. Like you pointed out, moderation is key.

  28. I get frustrated with studies like this, to say the least. It just reminds me of ALL the people who think I’m crazy for continuing to run, despite my injuries in the past (and, um, present).

    Not surprisingly, most of the people who tell me they think I should quit running are not only non-runners, but they are non-exercisers and could qualify as being overweight. What is the alternative – eat twinkies and sit on the couch?? I don’t think so!

    Sadly, I think some people just look for an excuse not to do something they don’t want to do.

  29. Good post, Sagan. I didn’t read the link either because like many other of your commenters, all these studies drive me nuts. What ever happened to good sense? But I guess it’s kinda hard to figure out just what is good sense with all the conflicting data. I just go with what feels right to me. That can’t be all wrong.

  30. oooh, i think all “nutrition” studies are inherintly flawed. not because of the scientists, but because the subjects are human. we are individuals, very different in our own right. trying to make assumptions for everyone frustrates me, we should focus on finding what’s right for us…

  31. Crystal Johnson- I imagine there are MANY people who interpret an article like this as a reason why not to exercise.

    Holly- agreed. I’ve been told that I eat too many egg whites and that that’s not healthy. But really, when you look at it, eating egg whites every day isn’t going to be detrimental to my health, ESPECIALLY in comparison to eating twinkies!

    Marsha- absolutely!

    ttfn300- love this thought!

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