Medical Benefits of Recumbent Bicycles

by Paul K. Nolan, M.D.

Have you ever been on a long bike ride or a bicycle tour and noticed another cyclist riding a recumbent bicycle? If you were very far into the ride you might have noticed something different about the recumbent rider, primarily a contented smile while riders on conventional bicycles (maybe even yourself) were grimacing.

On two different week long 500+ mile summer tours this had occurred to me. At the end of a long day in the saddle I noticed riders like myself on conventional bikes shunning their mounts and walking with a slight bend to their backs and a bowed leg gate reminiscent of a Rexall Cowboy after a too long trail ride. The riders on the recumbents, however, still grinning, would be tooling around on their bikes, and when not on them, walked with no hint of the afflictions of their conventional mounted counterparts. I surmised that these guys either had a secret stash of some forbidden opiate or they were literally onto something with their recumbents. Discretely I conducted some clinical research on these laid back riders and their conventional counterparts making mental notations of their activities, positioning, and pedaling.

The semi-reclined position of the recumbent rider provided a much broader distribution of the body weight across the more anatomically correct padded areas of the buttocks and across the back. The hands, arms and shoulders were in a relaxed position not bearing the weight of the torso. With the back in a reclined positioned, the abdomen was flat and straight which allowed full and easy expansion of the lungs. The feet rested on the pedals allowing easy flexion and extension of the legs and afforded a relaxed resting position much like on a recliner foot rest. The head was held in a neutral position, looking forward, the neck relaxed. Eye contact with motor vehicle drivers was second nature to the recumbent riding position.

The conventionally mounted cyclist was a dichotomy of the recumbent cyclist. The weight of the rider was concentrated on the narrow unpadded symphysis pubis (pubic bone) and on the hands. The Homo sapiens was not anatomically designed to bear weight on the arms like a quadruped nor was it designed to sit straddling a fence rail (politicians excluded). The head is forced in a perpetual downward stare, making eye contact with drivers a forced event, the rider having to hyper-extend the neck to get a glance down the road. This can lead to neck muscle spasms and cervical spine strains.

Not noting any other signs of opiate intoxication save the perpetual grin of the recumbent riders, my assessment was they truly were onto something with their strange looking machines.

Casting my analytical doubts aside I asked several of the recumbent riders if I could try taking their wheels for a spin. They all eagerly acquiesced, (try finding some fossil fueled wheeler doing that). Before I mounted up though, one of them told me quite soberly, "You can only do it on one condition, You must accept this truth: once you have ridden a recumbent there is no turning back to a conventional bike." What else can I say? "I came; I saw: I rode; I converted!"

So what are the medical benefits of recumbent bicycles? Saddle sores become a distant unpleasant memory. The broad weight distribution across the back and buttocks allows good circulation to areas where the blood vessels are compressed closed for prolonged periods of time when on a conventional saddle. Chronic compression of the perineal nerve which runs under the symphysis pubis leading to the DDD (the Dreaded Dead Dingus) is completely eliminated. Males with chronic prostate problems that are aggravated by sitting on a conventional bicycle seat can find exquisite relief on a recumbent seat. Additionally, recumbent seats that are made of nylon webbing allow ample air circulation about the buttocks and back keeping these areas substantially cooler and drier. In fact, recumbent seats are ridden on more comfortably in non-padded shorts which allows for even more efficient evaporation of perspiration.

The upper extremities are not forced to doing something they were not anatomically designed for. The pains in the neck, shoulders and arms of day long rides disappear. Numb hands and fingers from median nerve compression (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) that can be severely aggravated by the hyper-extension and weight bearing of the wrists that occurs while riding a conventional bike are relieved especially on recumbents with underseat steering where the arms and hands are relaxed at the side of the body in a neutral position.

The lower back is not forced into a hunched over position but is allowed to assume a relaxed natural reclining position. My wife made an observation three months after I began riding my Ryan Vanguard (no longer in production, ed) recumbent, I no longer complained of my back aching. Even though I had been a life long bicycle commuter, and had for the last five years been riding a conventional touring bike that had been properly fitted to me, over the last year my back was growing increasingly sore from my commutes.

Safety is another big medical bonus. With the continual head up riding position the rider is far more aware of the riding environs. Eye contact with motor vehicle drivers is quite easy. The rider is closer to the road, is riding in a feet forward position and less likely to take a header in the event of a crash. During one ride before I became a convert, I was screaming 50 mph down a long 10% grade along side a rider on an Easy Racer Gold Rush Replica long wheel based recumbent. His composite rear wheel disintegrated from brake overheating. Instead of flipping end over end as would have happened had he been riding a conventional road bike like mine, he was able to skid the recumbent to a stop on the rear chain stays and dragging his feet Fred Flintstone style. The only leather that was lost was on his shoes, he walked away unscathed. I have crashed on my recumbent only suffering a small abrasion to my thigh. I simply skidded to a stop on my side not endo-ing or jamming my wrist and incurring a probable fracture or concussion had I gone down in a similar manner on my conventional road bike.

There is one clear disadvantage of recumbents for those afflicted with agoraphobia (fear of contact with people) and introverts. Recumbents draw crowds and conversations just about anywhere you stop. People notice recumbents and they want to know more about them. If you suffer any of the conventional bike medical maladies I have described, look seriously at recumbent bicycles; they can truly renew your love affair with bicycling.

Reprinted from Recumbent Cyclist News.

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