“I think encouraging cycling for over 50’s is also a great way to challenge negative perceptions of ageing” – Dany

We spoke to Dany about her own cycling journey, the mental, physical and social benefits of cycling and the impact cycling can have on social isolation. As a keen cyclist, Dany also highlighted the role of cycling in making Sheffield an Age-Friendly City.

Dr. D. Jadresic (retired) is a Core Partner at Age Better in Sheffield. Our Core Partnership includes South Yorkshire Housing Association staff as well as people over 50, active and retired professionals, and senior official representatives from organisations across the city. The Partnership Board meet regularly throughout the year to oversee and direct the development of the programme. 

Hello! Please could you tell us about your cycling journey?

“Hello!  I am Dany and I live in Sheffield. I used to do a lot of cycling whilst in London as a student and as a junior doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed tackling London’s complex roads with that feeling of invincibility you have in your youth, I was very proficient and went everywhere by bike. However, with family and career, I gradually left it behind.

Then, about 12 years ago I got rheumatoid arthritis. I did think of going on a bike for a while because my hospital doctor recommended regular exercise, but I tried it and just found it very uncomfortable on my joints. This was because I wasn’t aware that it was due to the type of bike I tried – so the message here is, do a bit of research and you can adapt cycling to your needs.

About 3 years ago, my sister organised a family activity holiday and one of the booked activities was cycling. I thought: “no way am I going to manage this” but I tried it. However, just as I predicted, I was being left behind and finding it quite hard on my joints. So, I went to give the bike back and they suggested I tried an electric bike: I absolutely loved it. Now it was me leaving everyone else behind!

So, I came home and said to my husband that this is something we could do. We both bought e-bikes and I went on a Pedal Ready advanced cycling course to get my confidence back on the roads.

I think I am fitter than I’ve ever been, with an electric bike you almost don’t realise that you are trying – the effort is still needed but it’s a containable effort. It’s good and gentle cardiovascular exercise. I also go on a push bike nowadays, you can often find routes to avoid the big hills in Sheffield and if there is an unavoidable hill on my way, I simply cycle up as far as I can and then walk up with the bike.

What are the benefits of cycling on physical, mental and social wellbeing?

Doctors suggest regular exercise for patients to manage a range of chronic physical conditions, including cardiovascular risk and arthritis. It’s also good for depression and anxiety; the physical effort releases those chemicals in the brain called endorphins which give you a sense of mental wellbeing.

We know from large European studies that ageing is generally associated with a decrease in physical  mobility and with a decrease in social interactions. You will find that older people with a better sense of balance tend to maintain better mobility and we know that cycling in healthy older adults may improve balance. But the overall message is that sustaining healthy levels of activity is really important for active ageing and that cycling can be a great part of that.

It’s never too late to start – there is evidence that exercise has health benefits even in over 70s people who have not done regular exercise before. I actually know a couple of people who have learned to cycle after the age of 50 and who are now keen cyclists. One of the World Health Organisation’s 8 domains for an Age Friendly City is transport, and interestingly, the focus in the past was all about public transport, but now active transport has been recognised as just as important.

One of the good things to have come out of the pandemic is that the government is encouraging people to walk and cycle to work. The sale of both push bikes and electric bikes has apparently rocketed. When people think of cycling they might think of young men racing in lycra shorts but in fact leisurely cycling or ‘utility cycling’ – where you are actually going somewhere to do something -, you can do it slowly, in normal clothes; you don’t have to hurry; you can do it at your own pace.

I think another barrier could be that most people remember the bikes they had as children which were really quite hard to push, particularly uphill. If you get an adult cycle with plenty of gears, then it can feel a little like walking uphill.  You can often have gears added to your old cycle.

Speaking from my own experience, cycling can actually be easier than walking for many and the NHS website supports cycling as a good form of regular exercise. Although, I would recommend getting medical advice before taking up cycling if you have a medical condition. As I mentioned earlier, cycles can be adapted in all sorts of ways, for example, for people who have back problems or who cannot walk.

We want Sheffield to be an Age Friendly City and to achieve that, we also need to make it a cycle-friendly city.  Research commissioned by British Cycling has suggested that even if 10% more people cycled, it would have an appreciable effect on traffic congestion, air pollution and road deaths. At a population level, the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks. Public Health Sheffield have also made a clear case that cycling is beneficial for the local economy.

How can cycling help combat social isolation?

“Be active” is one of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing to tackle social isolation and cycling could be a great way to get active. Cycling has been shown to improve feelings of social isolation, a reason for this could be that the cycling community is usually friendly: on the road, through cycling buddies or cycle sharing schemes or through cycling groups. During lockdown, just seeing people face-to-face was significant, even if it is from a distance and only for a second; it’s just having that human contact with people which makes us feel part of the human race. I know that cycling brought me that sense of human connection in the initial months of lockdown.

I think encouraging cycling for over 50’s is also a great way to challenge negative perceptions of ageing. Ageing is about having the opportunity to live life to the full in the best way you can, contributing to your family, local community and/or to wider society. Cycling offers an increased sense of agency, or self-mastery and control in your life.

There has never been a better time to get cycling. Why not get your old bike out of storage and give it a go (after testing it is fit to cycle)? Why not borrow or hire one? And if you are young, why not invite a parent or older relative or friend to join you for a socially distanced cycle and send us your picture to post on our website!