E-bikes can provide significant health benefits, new research suggests

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FEATURE — The COVID-19 pandemic has created the biggest surge in bicycle sales in decades, as cooped-up people wary of gyms and public transportation have taken up peddling. But what if you want to work the heart without burning your lungs or are you daunted by hills and distance?

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An electric, or e-bike, might be what you’re looking for. E-bikes have a small electric motor that engages when you pedal to give you a boost, which is especially helpful on inclines. A recent study found that a rider’s “average heart rate on an e-bike was 94% of the average heart rate on a traditional bike.” E-bikes are a fun form of exercise that are becoming increasingly affordable.

My parents retired and moved to St. George a couple years ago. Both were educators in public schools and physically active all their lives. My dad coached sports and mom has always enjoyed the outdoors.

Retirement found them being less physically active, and they both experienced health challenges including chronic pain and joint replacement. Running was out, going to a gym or riding a pedal bike was not appealing and walking became mundane. Exercise to them seemed like an undesirable chore. Their age and health conditions made them more susceptible to complications from illnesses like COVID-19.

I came across a Harvard study showing that “overweight or obese people who engage in leisure-time physical activity can extend their lives by as much as four years.”

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Regularly engaging in 30 minutes of physical activity that gets the heart rate up also deploys certain types of white blood cells that can prevent communicable diseases.

“These very specialized, powerful immune cells are like the Army Rangers of the military,” said exercise immunology researcher David Nieman, doctorate in public health, a professor of biology at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus. “They come out and circulate during exercise at a higher rate than normal. Any pathogens are more easily detected and destroyed during this process.”

My parents are not obese, but if they were physically active for at least half an hour per day, our family could enjoy having them around longer, and they might be less likely to get seriously ill from diseases like COVID-19 and influenza.

Cougar Hall, Ph.D., a lead author in the e-bike study referenced in the first paragraph, said the following:

We are suffering from what we call lifestyle diseases. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes. These are all diseases that are directly related to our lifestyle. So to get people moving more – and to find a healthy outlet for the stress that we feel in our work and in our families – is essential. And so I just see e-bikes as one additional tool, one additional opportunity to help people who are otherwise fairly sedentary or not enjoying physical activity.”

I started talking to my parents about trying an e-bike. It took a while for Dad to warm up to the idea, but eventually we began to shop around. I will never forget the first time my dad rode an e-bike. The first thing I noticed was the large smile on his face as the pull of the pedal-assist motor quickly got him up to 20 miles per hour. It was like he was a kid again, but the cost kept him from purchasing the bike at that time.

We kept researching and eventually found a number of online e-bike options that were around $1,000 (new e-bikes can average about $2,800). Dad bought one for Mom for her birthday. A short time later, he found one in the classifieds – basically brand new – for $800. Now my parents are exercising more regularly.

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Not only do my parents ride their bikes for fun around the neighborhood, they also reduce car trips by occasionally riding to the grocery store, to work, to church and to visit friends. Exercise changed from being an undesirable chore to an enjoyable activity with physical and mental health benefits. E-biking gets them out of the house to experience the wind in their hair and sunshine on their faces.

E-bike batteries can last up to 40 miles or longer, so now my parents don’t have to worry about getting exhausted and not being able to ride home. Their e-bikes offer different levels of pedal assist, so they can adjust how much work they want to do.

If you’re looking for a fun way to exercise and want to ride a bicycle that can make you feel years younger, consider an e-bike. Your financial investment could extend your life expectancy and save you money on health care and car-related expenses.

Ultimately, whether it’s an e-bike, traditional bicycle, walking, running or weightlifting, we invite our readers to find an exercise that you do frequently to stay active and healthy.

Written by KYE NORDFELT, health promotion director for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Health magazine.

Copyright © Southwest Utah Public Health Foundation, all rights reserved.

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