By Kevin Kolodziejski
It’s a running joke of mine, not meant to be funny or offensive but simply to express a climber’s disdain for the type of bicycle racing known as the criterium. It goes something like this: That God only permits cyclists to congregate in urban settings and corporate centers to make hundreds of right-hand turns for about an hour at a time while endlessly jostling for position — and occasionally using his name in vain — to show that the sport falls just a wee bit short of the state that he and he alone has attained.
What is no joke, though, is why you could argue all forms of cycling fall short of this lofty mark. While cycling’s considered low-impact exercise, which is generally seen as a good thing, it’s also non-weight bearing, which is not. That means whether you sit and spin, climb or sprint — or even mash upon those pedals until your lungs burn up, your eyes bug out, and it’s time to make another right-hand turn — you won’t put the sort of stress on your bones that’s conducive to their health.
Worse, hours upon hours of saddle time encourages the opposite, a lowering of bone density. It’s called osteopenia and leads to what you might call the oh-no osteo, osteoporosis.
Riding Encourages the ‘Osteos’
For longtime or long-toothed cyclists, either can lead to more than back pain and poor posture. The osteos can take a crash that would’ve created just a bad bruise years ago and — as if it’s Thanksgiving dinner and your two young nephews just yanked on the dried out wishbone — snap bones more or less in half. But unlike this Turkey Day tradition, no good luck comes from breaking bones out on the roads. So why not start a different tradition, one that just might keep you from doing so?
Why Not Go Riding and Rucking This Winter?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t fully understand what’s being asked of you. Unlike the 17 million or so who have viewed posts about it on TikTok, I had no clue what rucking entails until about a month ago — even though I first did it one June day about 15 years ago.
Totally out of desperation.
I was a desperate man because I had that pressing, need-to-exercise-hard feeling — and no hands. Well, at least not useful ones. My right was in a splint from surgery to piece together the metacarpal bone below my right pinky finger. It had been, according to the surgeon’s assistant, shattered like glass when I encountered a mixture of moisture and oil on a steel grate bridge.
The combination caused a crash that not even Peter Sagan in his prime could’ve avoided, one that also lacerated the palm of my left hand, lead to 11 stitches, and a thick gauze wrap to protect them.
Look Ma, No Hands!
While I had ridden a bike affixed to a wind trainer sitting fully upright and hands-free in the three days between the accident and the surgery, I had not been able to do so with any real intensity. Something both my body and mind at that moment needed.
So desperation supplanted necessity as the mother of invention, and I put on a backpack, had my dad (who had stayed overnight because of the surgery) load it with three 10-pound barbell plates (two 25’s just wouldn’t fit), and I walked up and down the hilly side streets of my town as fast as I could for 90 minutes. That solved my immediate problem — and created another, albeit a good one. My legs, unaccustomed to walking that long and with extra weight, were extremely sore the next day.
While you may not consider extreme leg soreness a good problem, you may want to consider rucking a bit more moderately or walking wearing a weight vest this winter. While the difference between the two isn’t great, there is one. When I walked with barbell plates in a backpack designed to carry school books, I was technically rucking — just not using a heavy-duty rucksack to do so. In their May 2022 Healthline article about rucking, Travis Edwards, PT, MPT and Saralyn Ward say using dumbbells, kettle bells, sandbags, rocks, or even bottles of water inside a backpack works just fine.
However, they stress “for best comfort . . . secure the weight as best as you can so that it doesn’t move or bounce around.” That’s what I found tough to do that day using a school backpack, especially on steep inclines or declines.
The Benefits of a Weight Vest
Yet when I did nearly the same walk years later with a weight vest — because a big-time blizzard kept me from riding outside for 10 days and I was going absolutely stir-crazy — that was not an issue. But you may take issue with purchasing something that could cost more than $100 simply to counteract excessive snowfall. That’s why this article has already explained how cycling can lead to low-bone density.
A Way to Maintain, Even Build, Bone Density
While simply walking a mile or more a day can offset the yearly 1-percent bone loss most encounter after the age of 35, rucking or walking with a weight vest actually adds enough additional stress so that you can do better than break even.
Moreover, if you incorporate the weight vest into the weightlifting you do for your legs, you’ll build bone while you maintain or build muscle. Not only does using a weight vest make all variations of squats, step ups, and lunges safer because your hands are now free to provide additional balance, but it also allows you to adopt a how-low-can-you-go (or high) mentality during those movements — which increases intensity without increasing the risk inherent in adding weight to a barbell — and ultimately makes your efforts in the weight room more likely to lead to more power and endurance on the bike.
Weight Vest Work Works for Seniors, Too
If you’re no longer a youngster and wondering if weight vest workouts might be too hard for you, take heart in a study published in January 2019 by the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
In it, 11 participants between the ages of 65 and 74 worked out on their own wearing a weight vest while following an “individualized progressive step exercise program” for six weeks. Compared to the participants’ pretests, the posttests showed on average an 11 percent increase in lower-limb power, a 9 percent increase in stair-climb time, and a 10 percent improvement in stair-climbing power. Increases substantial enough that the paper ends by suggesting such training “has the potential to prolong independence and prevent age-related health conditions such as sarcopenia.”
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.