Few activities are as ageless as cycling. From the moment the training wheels go on—and then again when they come off—the spell is cast. More than just a fun way to spend time with your family, riding a bike is a great way to see your community up close, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “It’s a little faster than walking, but with time to discover all kinds of interesting stuff—a creek you didn’t know was there, a path that’s a shortcut to somewhere,” says Clarke. “A bike gives you a unique perspective on the world that you just don’t get when you’re zipping by at 50 miles an hour in a car.”
Most children aren’t ready for their own bicycle until they’re at least 5 years old. With the right equipment, though, they can make ideal passengers (see below). Ready to ride? Before you take to the streets, here’s a quick primer on what to know before you go.
Warm up. The best way to get your muscles and joints ready for a bike ride is to walk your bike to wherever it is you plan to begin riding. Better yet, hop on and start pedaling. Just be sure to pace yourself. Go slowly for the first 5 to 10 minutes, suggests A.T. Still University of Health Sciences’ Johnson.
Build up. The League of American Bicyclists recommends taking kids to an open field, vacant parking lot, or track, so they can get the feel of bicycling before taking to the streets. Have them practice riding in circles as well as in straight lines, stopping frequently to get used to the brakes. During training sessions, get your child to practice turning and looking back at you until he can do it without swerving. (This will help him check his blind spots later when riding on the road.) Have him practice hand signals: right, left, stop. When you’re riding in front of him, do the same so he can learn from you. Around age 10, children are ready to ride on streets with minimal traffic. Map out short routes to fun destinations like a playground or a friend’s house in the neighborhood.
Make it a routine. “It takes two weeks to create a habit,” says Charles Cappetta, M.D., member of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire. “Start with a 5- or 10-minute bike ride a day and build up gradually.” Even if you can ride only on weekends, you’ll be instilling a love for biking in your kids—and reaping many of the health benefits, too.
Change it up. Check out trails in your area, and each week, set a goal of riding someplace different.
Cool down. Try the exercises in the walking section to stretch your calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps. To stretch your upper body muscles after a bike ride, try these exercises:
- Neck roll: Slowly turn your head to the right, then down, letting your chin touch your chest, then left, and center again (this is especially good for neck muscles after wearing a helmet).
- Shoulder/chest stretch: Stand with hands clasped together behind your back at your waist. Slowly straighten your arms by reaching hands away from you.
- Upper-arm stretch: Stand with right hand behind your neck, your elbow pointed upwards. Use your left hand to push your right elbow down. Change arms; repeat.