I’ve been thinking about cycling and bones quite a bit recently. In theory, I could be in several risk groups. Although I’m male, and women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis than men, I am by my own free will a dairy-free, coffee drinking cyclist. Alarmingly, I’ve read several articles which suggest that all three of these things might be bad news for my bones.
Is Cycling Bad for Bones?
One of the great things about cycling is that, right up until you crash, it’s very low impact. Unfortunately it seems that this might also be to blame for a decrease in bone health among cyclists. A quick search brings up a few studies on this and the bad news is, they’re not particularly favourable.
- A 2011 systematic review of bone health in cyclists concluded that “there is concerning but inconsistent, limited-quality disease-oriented evidence—primarily from cross-sectional data—indicating that cyclists may be at risk for low bone mass, particularly at the lumbar spine”.
- A 2012 systematic review of cycling and bone health concluded that “road cycling does not appear to confer any significant osteogenic benefit”.
- A 2016 review of the effects of swimming and cycling on bone mineral density concluded that they “do not cause positive effects on BMD and, therefore, are not the most suitable exercises for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis”.
Looking at these it appears to me that cycling may or may not be actively bad for bone health, but is certainly not good for it either. I asked the National Osteoporosis Society if this conclusion is fair:
As you say they suggest that in general cycling doesn’t positively affect bone density and so isn’t the most suitable exercise for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Even so it still forms a very valuable activity nonetheless.
The studies seem to show that exercise such as cycling although it may help to improve muscle tone does not appear to place enough of a mechanical load on our bones to stimulate bone formation.[…] in general, cycling is good for general health and fitness, muscle tone and strength however it isn’t the most suitable exercise for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.
As long(ish) distance cyclist I also asked the National Osteoporosis Society whether endurance cycling might be worse for bone health than short high intensity sessions:
[…] perhaps if someone is cycling for long periods of time (endurance cycling) this could theoretically reduce the amount of time that they might have for alternative weight-bearing exercise as well. The balance of exercise might be lost and this could have an effect on bone health too.
Is Coffee Bad for Bones?
Another potential risk factor among cyclists like myself is a love of regular coffee stops. It’s often suggested that this can have a negative effect on bone health but, as long as you’re not going too over-board with the caffeine, you should be okay:
- A 1992 study, “Is caffeine consumption a risk factor for osteoporosis?“, concluded that the “data suggest[s] that caffeine intake in the range consumed by a representative sample of white women is not an important risk factor for osteoporosis. Among elderly women, however, in whom calcium balance performance is impaired, high caffeine intake may predispose to cortical bone loss from the proximal femur”.
- A 1993 study, “Caffeine, urinary calcium, calcium metabolism and bone” reached a similar conclusion.
- A 2002 study, “Effects of caffeine on bone and the calcium economy“, concluded that “there is no evidence that caffeine has any harmful effect on bone status or on the calcium economy in individuals who ingest the currently recommended daily allowances of calcium”.
- A 2006 study, “Coffee, tea and caffeine consumption in relation to osteoporotic fracture risk in a cohort of Swedish women” suggested that you might want to limit yourself to 4 cups of coffee (“our results indicate that a daily intake of 330 mg of caffeine, equivalent to 4 cups (600 ml) of coffee, or more may be associated with a modestly increased risk of osteoporotic fractures, especially in women with a low intake of calcium”).
How Can Cyclists Look After Their Bones?
The general advice for avoiding Osteoporosis is to eat healthily, get plenty of calcium, meet your daily vitamin requirements, and regularly do weight bearing exercise.
I asked the National Osteoporosis Society if cyclists should keep anything else in mind:
As a keen amateur cyclist do your best to ensure that your cycling technique is good and try to incorporate other exercises that are weight bearing; walking- varying the pace and incline, jogging, running skipping and doing other muscle resistance exercises too.
In addition to the lack of mechanical load on your bones when you’re cycling, one Cycling Weekly article stated that “during intense training sessions, up to 200mg of calcium can be lost per hour” and that cyclists should therefore consume more calcium than non-cyclists. It looks like that might not be entirely accurate:
[…] the calcium content of sweat […] has a very small amount of minerals dissolved in the water it contains. I’m not aware of evidence suggesting that a specific number of milligrams of calcium are sweated out each hour during intense training or that cyclists need an increased daily calcium consumption compared to other people.
Are Dairy Based Sources of Calcium Best?
The same Cycling Weekly article also claimed that dairy based sources of calcium “are best”. This is just patently untrue. The National Osteoporosis Society, who it has be said are not exactly champions of the vegan movement themselves, state quite clearly on their website that “dairy is just one way to get good amounts of calcium; it’s not better absorbed or preferable to non-dairy sources”.
At risk of labouring the point, they also say that “a vegetarian diet is not a risk factor for osteoporosis and vegetarians and vegans do not appear to have poorer bone health than the rest of the population” and in their email to me they clarified, once again, that being vegan “is not considered to be a significant risk factor if you have well-balanced diet”.
Look what came in the post from the good people at @goveganworld today! I can't wait to hand these out and hopefully help more people make the connection #govegan #bethechange #goveganworld #dairytakesbabiesfrommothers #dairyisscary #veganactivism #bevegan #notyourmumnotyourmilk #vegan #havecompassion #drinkplantmilk
It’s also worth remembering that, although other lifestyle factors and genetics will apply, osteoporosis is more common in countries where diary consumption is high. Itself this is only a correlation, but a good amount of evidence does suggest that drinking milk does not reduce fracture risk. Nutrition Facts, a non-profit evidence based nutrition information resource, has a really interesting and fully cited video on this: “Is Milk Good for Our Bones?“.
I passionately believe that everyone should avoid dairy products, both for health reasons and as a stand against the cruelty and death that is behind each glass of milk. There loads of delicious, nutritious, and cruelty free sources of calcium. Broccoli, kale, dates, almonds, dried figs, dates, chia seeds, spring greens, and a whole load of other things have good amounts of calcium in them without any of the downsides that come with milk. For an after-ride drink, dairy-free milks have never been more widely available.