How Cycling Affects Your Lungs

The benefit of exercise on your lungs is no secret. While this is widely acknowledged, cycling has often been left out of the conversation due to many believing it did more harm to your lungs than good. The culprit? Air pollution.

Although no one can deny a cyclist will be exposed to a certain degree of polluted air, it’s recently been found by air quality analysts at Kings College London that, in fact, cyclists breathe better air than people in buses and cars who are taking the same route.

Now that worry is out of the way, let’s focus on what exactly happens to our lungs during a ride. Here we’ve listed five that happen, and how they contribute to a healthy and happy respiratory system.

Discover more: What Are The Health Benefits Of Cycling? [Interactive]

Your lungs inflate and deflate at an increased rate

As you cycle, your lungs pump harder to funnel more oxygen into your bloodstream, enabling you to push harder and cycle further.

Once oxygen is transported to your muscles, it is turned to carbon dioxide, the waste product of all the energy their cells have created. This is why we need to breathe out to remove the carbon dioxide from the body.

Read More: How Cycling Boosts Your Heart Health

Lung capacity increases

Not only do your lungs inflate and deflate at a faster rate, they also take in more oxygen each time. Your lungs are protected by your ribs so cannot expand past a certain limit, but your lung volume is still able to increase by as much as 15% during exercise.

This combination of breathing both deeper and more rapidly, means that you’re able to meet the metabolic demands of your body during your ride. Your heart also kicks into overtime to be able to keep up with the increased supply of oxygen and transport it around your body to your working muscles.

In the long term, your maximum lung capacity will improve by 5-15%, and as a result, the efficiency of your lung function will improve. This is why the more you cycle, the easier it becomes and the more you can push yourself.

Your abs get involved

All of this increased lung function comes at a price. If you imagine pumping up a tire, as the tire inflates to its maximum capacity, you need more force to pump in the air - the same applies to getting more air into the lungs during exercise.

This is where your abdomen muscles come in. To blow out air faster during your ride, your body recruits your abs, meaning you can inhale more air and more oxygen can be provided to your muscles. At rest, this does not happen – breathing is accomplished by your diaphragm and rib cage muscles only.

Differently to resting periods, the expiratory muscles play an active role in breathing during a ride. During inspiration, while the rib cage muscles contract, your abdominal muscles relax and vice versa when you breathe out. This means that the diaphragm’s workload eases up and it can concentrate on pulling in even more much-needed air. Who’d have thought your abs would be so crucial in a sport that mostly relies on legs!

Your diaphragm works even harder

Unlike your abdominal muscles, your diaphragm is always hard at work whether you’re exercising or not. The diaphragm sits under your lungs and, during rest, it contracts by pulling downwards which causes you to breathe in, and then it relaxes by moving back up again, causing you to breathe out.

As mentioned previously, the diaphragm’s role changes slightly when you set off on your bike ride as your abs take some of the workload away. This doesn’t mean your diaphragm can have a break – it simply means that it’s able to work much harder. As it flattens out, it enlarges your chest cavity which creates a pressure change. It’s this pressure change that forces air to rush inside of you, which happens a lot more frequently during your cycle.

Your respiratory muscles get stronger

We all know that cycling makes your muscles – specifically those in the legs – a whole lot stronger. What’s less obvious, however, is how your respiratory muscles benefit.

As we’ve seen, riding your bike makes your breathing muscles work in overtime to fuel your hard-working muscles. All this hard work makes your respiratory muscles a great deal stronger than they would be if you didn’t ride or exercise at all. The long-term effects of these muscles becoming stronger means your ability to extract oxygen from the air and your vital capacity both increase. This is why you feel yourself getting fitter the more and more you ride.

So, next time you’re on a ride taking in the country views or trying to safely navigate busy traffic, just take a moment to appreciate how hard your lungs are working to make sure you can keep on pedalling. Remembering the respiratory rewards for your body will also provide you with that little bit of extra motivation to power-on during a particularly challenging ride – it’s win-win!

If you are planning on hitting the roads for a health boost for your lungs, be sure to check out our cycling insurance.

Please note the information provided on this page should not be taken as advice and has been written as a matter of opinion. For more on insurance cover and policy wording, see our homepage.