The Diet Detective: Bicycling -- the road to Thinsville

With gas prices and bellies both swelling, why not solve two problems with one simple tool -- a bike? Biking is one of most efficient calorie burners around.


Riding at a leisurely 10 to 12 mph, you can burn 423 calories in an hour. Up that to 14 to 15.9 mph, and you'll burn about 700 calories.

Biking is fun, builds muscle, and is a great way to get some exercise while you're running errands -- and it's also environmentally sound. Here are a few tips to get started.

Getting a bike

"People have lots of ideas about what they're going to do with their bikes, and as a result they can get stuck with the wrong bike," says Bill Strickland, executive editor of Bicycling magazine.

He suggests making an honest assessment with your past behavior in mind. Think of the one thing that you're sure you will do with your bike and buy it based on that. Commuting? Racing? Bike paths? Touring? (See also: Find the right bike)

"There are many categories and many components for bikes. What's your budget? The most expensive and elaborate bikes are unnecessary for the vast majority of cyclists," says Richard First, president of POMG Bike Tours of Vermont. Also, consider the climate and terrain where you live, because people often bike where it's convenient. Also, make sure you get a color you like, adds Strickland.

You can spend anywhere from $200 to $10,000. Place more value on a good frame and wheels, and don't worry so much about the components.

Recommendations from Bicycling magazine:
  • TREK 820, $250: This reliable road bike offers lots of bike for the money. With a rugged, mountain bike look and a lifetime warranty, who wouldnt want to ride this?
  • GIANT FCR 4, $440.00: This great value bike comes equipped with flat handlebars and a spring-seat to make for a smooth, comfortable ride.
  • SCHWINN MESA GS, $440: The perfect bike for an off-road beginner, this bike has a rock shock suspension fork to absorb hard hits and dirt-ready tires for great traction.
  • FELT F4C, $2,299: A road bike built to the same tech specs as many companies $5,000 racers, but more affordable.
  • SPECIALIZED RUBY PRO, $4,400: A serious road bike built just for women that guarantees a comfortable, confident and speedy ride for expert riders.

Getting the right fit

Purchasing a bike without seeing if it's the ideal fit is a bad idea -- the bike could end up being a garage dust collector. Bicycling magazine's Strickland advises visiting a well-established bike shop with expert salespeople. "If they don't discuss fitting you to the right bike within the first 15 or 20 minutes ... you're probably in the wrong shop."

Get on the bike. Make sure it's comfortable. Softer and wider seats are better for cruising; however, for long distances, narrow seats are better because they prevent your legs from rubbing on the seat.

Get in position. The positioning of the rider is important, says John Howard, U.S. Bicycling Hall of Famer and 14-time national champion. Make sure the frame is the right size: Straddle the bike in front of the seat, and plant your feet on the ground. There should be a couple of inches between the bar and your crotch, says Strickland.

The seat should be adjusted so your legs are about 90 percent straight when your feet are at the bottom of the pedal stroke while sitting. Your knees should never lock, and you should never feel like you're reaching with your legs as you pedal.

Handlebars. When you're in the seat and your hands are on the handlebars, your elbows should be slightly bent. If your arms are stretched too far, the bike is probably too big. You want to be able to reach the handlebars without overextending or hunching. Your shoulders should be relaxed, elbows bent and back straight.

Test ride. Make sure it feels right, and test out the gears and brakes.

Recycled cycles

A used bike could be a great way to get started. Follow the same principles (size, color and style) as if you were buying a new bike.
  • Get the bike evaluated by a bike shop, says Strickland. (Cost $30-$60.) Make sure they check the wheel alignment, brakes, chain, and gears and look for cracks in the frame. Get it in writing.
  • Test it out on the terrain you will be using.
  • Get the bike's history.
  • Get a written warranty.
  • What about online? "The deals are pretty good; however, it's probably for more experienced cyclists," says Strickland. Check out, or pay a shop to check it out, warns Strickland.

Be safe

The helmet. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says wearing a helmet can reduce bikers' risk of head injury by 85 percent. But it can't help if you don't wear it properly. Try on several to get the best fit.

According to CPSC, "The shell should conform as closely as possible to the shape of your head and should cover your hairline. Wear the helmet level on your head, not tilted back to expose your forehead, and make sure you don't have it on backwards. Helmets usually come with stick-on pads to fine-tune the fit."

Best Helmets
Consumer Reports recommends the following helmets, which were among those that passed its impact-absorption and chin-strap strength tests:

  • For adults, the Bell Citi ($45) and Bell Slant ($50)
  • For youths, the Bell Trigger ($30) and the Schwinn Intercept ($17)
  • For toddlers, the Bell Boomerang ($30)

Move the helmet around on your head with both hands. It shouldn't move more than an inch or so. The straps should be snug, but not so tight that they pinch or keep you from opening your mouth.

Look for a CPSC sticker inside the helmet showing safety compliance.

Other safety tips. "Pretend you're a car," says Erik Moen, a Seattle-based physical therapist. Obey the rules of the road. Use hand signals for stopping and turning. Be predictable in traffic -- avoid erratic riding patterns.

Former Olympian John Howard also suggests riding defensively but aggressively. In other words, don't be timid. Be visible --wear bright clothes, have a whistle or other signaling device, and use reflectors and lights at night.

Make sure to do a gentle five-minute ride to warm up. According to Moen, "Bicycling requires good flexibility of the quadriceps, hamstring and gluteus maximus." Dede Barry, author of Fitness Cycling (Human Kinetics, 2006) recommends a stretching routine, including legs, back, neck and arms.

How do you avoid pain? "Pay attention to proper bicycle fit, appropriate strength and flexibility training for bicycling, good pedaling skills and appropriate progression of riding volume and intensity," adds Moen.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for The Diet Detective newsletter free at

Copyright 2006 by Charles Stuart Platkin

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