Biking Your Way to Better Health

Riding a bicycle can be an excellent fitness activity.

Cycling is also a good way to cross-train, because it puts much less stress on your joints, knees, and hips than running or walking. Getting a good workout on a bike isn't always easy, though, because you have more time to recover—or to just coast.

With this in mind, here's how to get the most out of your ride, whether you're cycling on vacation, around your neighborhood, or to and from work.

Size up your bike

Your bike should be sized according to your body proportions, advises the International Bicycle Fund (IBF). You can't change a bike's frame size, so go to a bike dealer who can fit you properly. To choose a bike with the correct frame size, the bicyclist straddles the top tube, stands with both feet flat on the ground, and checks clearance between the top tube and his or her crotch. Recommended clearance depends on the type of riding you will be doing—1 to 2 inches for road riding and double that for off-road riding. Sizing may vary by brand and may be different from bicycle  to bicycle.

Seat height also is important. To position your seat at the proper level, sit comfortably on the saddle and fully extend your right leg with your right heel resting on the pedal in the 6 o'clock position. Sit squarely on the seat with your hands on the handlebars.

If your seat is at the correct height, you'll have a slight bend at the knee (the knee should be bent at an angle of 25 to 30 degrees). For the most comfort, the seat should be level or tilted slightly downward.

Use your gears

Most all-terrain bikes have 15 to 21 gears. To get a good workout, learn to use all of them, the IBF says. In general, gear down when you're riding into the wind or uphill; gear up when riding with the wind or downhill. The gears should be used to maintain a steady cadence whether going uphill or down, into the wind, or with the wind at your back.

Ideally, you should consistently ride in a gear that allows you to maintain your target heart rate—50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Your target heart rate is the range at which sustained physical activity—running, cycling, swimming laps, or any other aerobic exercise—is considered safe and effective, experts at the CDC say. You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Multiply this figure by 0.50 and 0.70 to get your target heart rate range. The more fit you are, the higher the percentage can go. For a precise measurement as you exercise, consider using a heart-rate monitor.

Get in bike shape

Every time you ride, practice these principles to ensure a safe workout: Don't start off intensely. Instead, gradually elevate your heart rate by warming up for the first five to 10 minutes of your ride by pedaling slowly and riding on flat ground. Otherwise, soreness is apt to set in and you increase your risk of a chronic injury, such as tendonitis. At the end of your ride, cool down for five minutes by gearing down and pedaling more slowly.

Cycle sensibly

Always wear a bicycle helmet and, if you cycle often, consider wearing padded cycling shorts to increase your comfort, the IBF says. Padded gloves can reduce the pressure on your hands. It's also wise to keep a water bottle handy and take a sip every 15 minutes.

Avoid riding on heavily trafficked streets. When you're on the road, signal to drivers when you are going to make a turn. Ride on the right side of the road, in the same direction as traffic. Wear reflective clothing so that you are visible to drivers. Overall, follow commonsense safety rules and ride only in areas where you feel comfortable and safe.