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Health & Exercise Forum

Cycling is Good Exercise, But Be Safe: Part 1 of 2

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Apr 19, 2010

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumSpring has sprung! Dust off your bikes and discover the beauty and challenge of the new biking trails at Lackawanna State Park in Dalton constructed by the Countryside Conservancy, where you might just run into Cathy Guzzi, physical therapist and cycling enthusiast. I have been asked to run this column on cycling for those who may have missed it a few years ago. We are fortunate to have many places to ride for cyclists of all levels, so take advantage of these trails, not only for the exercise, but also for the beauty and tranquility of Penn’s Woods.

Bicycle riding is a great way to get cardiovascular exercise. It is easy, can be done indoors on a stationary bike or outdoors weather permitting. It is kind to your hip, knee and ankle joints. It can be inexpensive and enjoyed by the entire family. However, if not done properly, it can lead to problems. A poorly fitted bike can lead to hip, knee and ankle pain, tendonitis, or back and neck pain. Also, an improper fitting seat can lead to pain and numbness in the peritoneum or saddle and lead to prostrate inflammation and erectile dysfunction. The good news is that with a little effort a properly fitted bike can offer many safe miles of great exercise and health problems can be avoided. The Canadian Physiotherapy Association and Eugene Geeza, physical therapist and cyclist have assisted me in compiling the following recommendations:

Frame Size

Frame size is one of the most important steps to insure a good fit. To be sure that the frame of the bike is right for you, stand over the top cross-bar between the seat and the handlebars. Road bikes should allow 1 inch between the bar and your buttocks while a mountain bike requires 2 to 6 inches of space depending on the terrain and slope of the trail that may require you to get your feet to the ground quickly.

Saddle Position

The saddle or seat should be as level as possible. If the seat tilts forward, then you will feel as if you are falling off the seat and your arms and back may take too much weight and stress. If your seat tilts backwards, then you will strain your lower back and too much stress will be placed on your buttocks and saddle area leading to discomfort. Proper saddle height should allow your leg to be just short of full extension, (a 10 to 20 degree angle) without locking the knee, at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If you are shifting your weight with each revolution, then your seat is too high.

Handlebar Position

Handlebar position has a direct effect on the comfort of your neck, middle and lower back while biking. If the bars are too low or too forward, it will force the rider to stretch and lean over and forward too far. This will stress the spine. If the bars are too high and back, it will force the rider to sit back too far and place more weight on the buttocks and saddle. As a rule, a taller rider is better with a bar that is lower than the saddle height and shorter riders are even or slightly above.

Foot/Shoe/Cleat Position

Misalignment of the feet while riding and pedaling repeatedly over many miles can create undue discomfort. In most cases, your feet should point straight ahead. However, due to unique differences in pelvis, hip, and lower leg alignment, a slightly toed out foot (10 to 20 degrees) may be necessary to prevent twisting stress in the legs as you pedal.

General Safety

EQUIPMENT: Helmets are a must! Also, keep your bike in good condition. Road bikes should have mirrors, reflectors and obey traffic rules. Use hand signals. Dress for weather and visibility. Have a first aide and tire patch kit, pump and tools. Seat comfort can be improved with gel cushion or split seat.

BE ALERT: for traffic, parked cars, pedestrians loose gravel and cracks in the road.

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Read Part 2, cycling tips.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of  Scranton, PT Dept.