Spinning wheels

Cycling is a health tour de force

By Greg Seiter

When Jim Jensen was growing up on the southside of Indianapolis in the 1970s and early 1980s, his bicycle represented freedom and provided a reliable mode of transportation for his part-time job as a paperboy. However, when Jensen, who now co-owns Jensen Ford Insurance Agency on State Road 135, suffered a heart attack in 2003, bicycling took on a much different meaning in his life.

“Walking and jogging were part of my rehab, but since I couldn’t drive for the first two to four weeks, I decided to get on my bike,” Jensen says. “It was great to feel the wind blow and the freedom that comes with it. Plus, my knees didn’t bother me like they did when I was jogging. I was hooked.”

Jensen now rides four to six days per week and during the summer months averages 225 miles each week. He has lost approximately 50 pounds, wears jeans that are one size smaller than what he wore while attending Perry Meridian High School and boasts a resting heart rate between 40 and 50 beats per minute. However, the overall experience was truly a wake-up call for him.

“I had very few risk factors for a heart attack,” Jensen says. “I was only a little overweight, and my cholesterol and triglyceride levels were in pretty good shape. I had lived in Fountain Square for a while and had worked in downtown so I did ride my bike a little to commute the three miles, but that was more about not wanting to pay for parking than it was about doing what was right for me.”

Pedaling the way to health

According to Harvard Health, a publication of the Harvard Medical School, bicycling yields numerous benefits. In fact, aside from the obvious cardiovascular gain, those in the medical profession say cycling is easier on joints than some other activities, is known to strengthen muscles, can improve balance and the way a person walks.

In addition, research has shown that cycling boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain, is an effective form of stress relief and can assist with sleep-related disorders.

“My weight is down, my cardiac health is excellent and all of my cholesterol numbers are low,” Jensen says. “I’ve had three different cardiologists, and they’ve all said the level of cycling I do did nothing but strengthen my heart faster than usual.”

To say Jensen is a bicycling enthusiast would be an understatement. He competes in mountain bike and cyclocross races. Cyclocross is a bicycle race that takes place over a cross-country course. During the race, riders generally face steep hills, turns and sometimes even muddy terrain that can occasionally force them to actually have to carry their bicycles over fences and up stairs. Jensen also assists Gray Goat Bicycle Co. in Franklin with club meetings, coordinated rides and social media initiatives. He has developed an undeniable passion for biking that seems to be reflective of the widespread popularity boom for the sport.

“It keeps growing year after year, and we’re seeing the demand grow with people of all ages,” says Brandon Street, Gray Goat manager. “People want to get off the couch and enjoy the outdoors. Families are riding together, too. What better way is there to spend time with the family than by exercising?”

Connie Szabo Schmucker, advocacy director at Bicycle Garage Indy, echoes this sentiment.

“People have always biked for various reasons, including to save money. But now, more people seem to be interested in incorporating it into their daily lives,” she says. “Green space and health have always been factors, but now there’s more of an emphasis on the social aspects.”

The city of Indianapolis is a perfect example. “Ten years ago, in downtown Indy, you might see a few people riding their bikes here and there, but now you can’t go more than a couple of blocks without seeing bikes parked everywhere and bicyclists riding everywhere,” Szabo Schmucker says.

In response to the apparent growing popularity of bicycling, Indianapolis officials have continued to add bike lanes on roadways and have created additional bike paths and resources for cyclists, including the Indy Bike Hub YMCA, a combination bicycle commuter hub and full fitness facility. Located on the east wing of Indianapolis City Market, the Indy Bike Hub YMCA is the first facility of its kind in the country.

“The idea was to have secure indoor parking, lockers, a fitness center and showers all in one place,” Szabo Schmucker says. “We’re trying to take away any excuses people might have for not riding their bikes.” That enthusiasm extends well into the southside. MapMyRide.com, a website on which users can share bike routes, features 633 cycling course entries for Franklin alone.

Safety first

Sadly, as the number of cyclists continues to increase, so does the number of bicycle-related accidents. According to AAA, on a national scale hundreds of cyclists are killed each year, and tens of thousands more are injured with accidents occurring on busy streets, bike paths, driveways and sidewalks. With that in mind, bike safety is imperative.

“Bikes, in general, are lighter now, and brakes are a lot stronger,” says Szabo Schmucker. “There is also a movement toward having daytime running lights. Helmets are lighter, too. They all have to pass the same requirements, but the differences have to do with adjustability and the amount of air that can pass through for cooling.”

Accidents with cars are of particular concern. “I’ve been hit by a car twice,” Jensen says. “The first time was in 2006, and the second was in 2013.”

It’s a problem that Street sees far too often. “A lot of drivers out there still don’t know the laws,” he said. “Sometimes, you see drivers buzz riders with their mirrors or they may speed up and try to go way too fast around a rider, just to make it to a stop sign before the rider does.”

While cyclists strive to benefit from the numerous health-related aspects of cycling, industry experts say they need to do everything they can to keep themselves safe and comfortable.

“When you’re first starting out, the biggest thing is the helmet,” Street says. “You have to make sure it fits your head or it won’t work the way it’s supposed to.”

AAA research indicates that head injuries are the most common cause of death and serious injury among bicyclists. In fact, it’s estimated that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of brain injury by up to 85 percent. But Street also says proper attire, including gloves and riding shorts, should be considered.

“And it’s always recommended that you have a bicycle fit to you,” he adds. “You take a flexibility test and your body measurements, and you adapt that information to a bicycle.”

Szabo Schmucker believes bicycling is an activity that everyone should try. “It can be done socially, alone or with a family,” she says. “And it can be done for transportation, fun, fitness or competition.

“I started riding with a group several years ago, and I can honestly say I felt more connected to the city just by riding my bike,” she says. “It just gives you more of a connection to your surroundings.

“People sometimes wave to you or even say ‘hi’ as you pass or as they pass you. “That’s something you usually don’t get when you’re in a car,” she says. “For me, cycling is just a great way to experience the city and community where I live, and it’s an outstanding form of exercise.”

Photo provided by Goat Bicycle Co.