When it comes to maintaining fitness, both running and cycling are great alternatives that come with a large list of benefits. Both workouts, when done regularly, burn calories, tone muscles, strengthen cardiovascular function, and even keep our brains healthy. Besides running and cycling complement each other as cross-training activities due to their different energy demands and the diverse ways in which they work on our body.

But is running better than cycling? A recent study concludes that when it comes to long-term bone health, running may strengthen your bones more than a cycling workout or even swimming. Conducted by the Istituto Ortopedico Galeazzi in Milan, the study examined the hormone levels of 12 mountain ultramarathoners before and after a 65 km race. Scientists were chiefly focused on the presence of two proteins in the bloodstream—osteocalcin and P1NP—which are known to be the main indicators of bone health. These results were then compared with those of 12 adults of the same age who didn’t run the race but did low to moderate physical exercise.

The tests revealed that the runners displayed lower levels of both osteocalcin and P1NP during the race, which can be explained due to the high energy demand of the sport. Their bodies were diverting resources meant for bone-building to make up for the energy required. After the race, however, the ultramarathon runners bounced back with higher levels of P1NP as compared to the non-running group. The results even went on to indicate that runners, despite this diversion of energy from their bones, enjoyed an overall net gain in long-term bone health.

Indoor cycling classes
Indoor cycling classes (Image: Gymfit Affoltern)

Dr Giovanni Lombardi, lead author of the study, further explained the role played by osteocalcin, which is, as per earlier studies, known to communicate with beta cells in the pancreas. The pancreas regulates the body’s glucose metabolism, that is, it provides energy supply during such aerobic workouts. “Because running exerts a higher physical load on bone than swimming or cycling, it could be that these forces stimulate bone tissue to signal to the pancreas to help meet its energy needs in the long-term,” he said, making the case that running is better than cycling for certain sections of the population. The results of the study were presented at the European Congress of Endocrinology.

The comparison with cycling comes from a previous study conducted by the same institute in 2012, which had found that cyclists racing in ultra-endurance conditions suffered chronic bone resorption – where calcium from bone is released into the blood stream, weakening bones. Cyclists and swimmers were found to have a far lower Bone Mineral Density (BMD), in some cases even when compared to non-athletes, which could be a precursor for fractures and poor bone health.

But does this conclusively prove that running’s better than cycling? Whatever your take may be, the current study is particularly insightful to those who have a pre-existing weak-bone condition but are looking to take up running or cycling to increase bone strength. “The every-day man and woman need to exercise moderately to maintain health. However, our findings suggest that those at risk of weaker bones might want to take up running rather than swimming or cycling,” signed off Dr Lombardi.

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