When my family and I moved to a bike-friendly neighborhood in Nashville, Tenn., I decided it was time to get in on the two-wheel trend. I was feeling a little jiggly (a byproduct of my love of cupcakes) and a little low on cash, so burning less fuel and more calories while running errands sounded like the perfect solution. Plus, my new "urban" bike, with its cushy seat and front rack for carrying groceries and such, was ideal for both short trips and longer glute-toning rides with my husband and daughter on weekend afternoons.
I'm not the only one jumping on the bicycle bandwagon: 71 percent of Americans say they would like to bicycle more, and the number of us biking to work is creeping steadily upward—U.S. Census data reports a 43 percent increase since 2000. "The interest is definitely surging, and will continue to surge," says J. Harry Wray, author of Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life.
The health benefits are an obvious plus—cycling burns an average of 400 calories an hour and short, heart-rate-boosting trips can jumpstart a sluggish metabolism. Case in point: Jeff Parsons, 60, a computer engineer in Nashville, rides 10 miles to work year-round, and has lost weight in the process. "I've dropped 20 pounds since I began bike commuting two years ago, but I keep it up because I enjoy it," he says.
As I donned my helmet to make my first grocery run, my husband, who once commuted by bike on the streets of Chicago, lectured me about safety. Actually, I appreciated his cautionary tips (think like a motorist being one of my favorites). The best way for a newbie cyclist, after all, to become comfortable on the roads is to talk to more seasoned cyclists. Most cities have bike clubs that can be your best source of info on the safest routes. It's also important to start off with a proper bike fit, which any reputable bike shop can offer. "The right saddle is really important," says Lorri Lee Lown, a certified personal trainer and founder of Velo Girls, a women's cycling club in the San Francisco Bay area. "If it hurts to ride, you're not going to."
I feel energized after even a short ride, and a tiny bit tough, too. I don't plan to drop my usual jogging or yoga, though. While biking does keep stress off your hips and knees, it's not a weight-bearing exercise, needed to keep your frame strong as you age, Lown says. But don't get me wrong: I love burning those extra calories, even if the burn is—every once in a while—a byproduct of pedaling to the coffee shop for a cupcake.