The first challenge in making cycling safer and more comfortable is finding a better seat. A number of different companies have come out with innovative designs, including seats with split saddles that can be adjusted to the width of your sit bones, saddles without noses, saddles with depressions in the middle of them, and saddles with extra padding. These can make a big difference for many people. (See sidebar.)
The second challenge is to address the issue of body positioning. If a forward-bent posture is so problematic, what is a healthier alternative? I asked Tommy Thompson, former chair of Alexander Technique International, this very question. (The Alexander Technique is a method for teaching individuals how to restore healthy body alignment and movement patterns.) According to Thompson: "Sitting totally erect is the healthiest position for the neck and back." This means that the low-tech bikes of 30 years ago, as clunky as they may have looked, were actually more in tune with good body mechanics. Stationary bikes also tend to allow for a more upright, balanced posture. The challenge is to find a modern, nonstationary bike that still allows for proper alignment.
Healthy Bicycle Options
Day 6 Comfort Bicycles: This is the only bicycle I've found that addresses all of the health risks discussed in this article.
BiSaddle Seat: The BiSaddle seat consists of two small parallel mini seats that can be adjusted for width and angle to be centered under the sit bones. This seat has an opening in the front center portion for accommodating the perineum, dorsal artery, and vein. It works equally well for individuals with a narrow or wide pelvis.
Hobson Bike Seat: The Hobson Bike Seat consists of two, side-by-side, oval-shaped seats. You can vary the width between the seats in order to make the appropriate space for the perineum. This seat is good for individuals with a wider pelvis. For those with a narrower pelvis, the hamstrings are somewhat compressed with each pedaling action.
Hobson Associates Inc. 6924 Canby Ave #101 Reseda, CA 91335 1-800-582-8088
DDwings Ergonomic Bike Saddle: The DDwings Ergonomic Bike Saddle has the widest sitting area on the dual platform. The front part of the seat has a spring-loaded hinge to allow the seat to move up and down with the thigh as you ride.
DDwings Techno 89 Morse St. Watertown, MA 02472 617-686-6879 www.ddwings.com
The Seat: "The Seat" looks like the back half of a regular bicycle seat with no nose in front. This seat is especially well-suited for women; since it does not have a space for the perineum to be suspended, it may not be as comfortable for men.
The Seat Ergo, LLC P.O. Box 659 Carnation, WA 98014
The ideal bike in this regard looks like a cross between a recumbent and a traditional bike, and combines the advantages of both. [See first listing in sidebar.] Like a recumbent bike, it places much less stress on the body. The rider remains in an erect sitting position, with no pressure on the wrists, elbows or shoulders. The neck is fully upright and the low back is supported. In addition, the bike has a shallow seat (complete with a back rest), enabling you to sit on your sit bones as you would in a chair, without putting any pressure on the perineal area. This bicycle also avoids some of the drawbacks of recumbents, including problems with visibility (being so low that it's hard to see and be seen) and difficulty raising the front tire to get up onto a curb.
Like many other inventions, this one was inspired by the creator's own personal challenges. The bike's designer, Kelly Hutson, once ran a landscaping company and hurt his back doing manual labor. As his kids got to an age at which they were starting to ride bikes, he tried riding with them, but found it was too stressful on his back. He made up his mind to figure out what he had to do to relieve the pressure.
Using one of his wife's old bikes as a starting point, he embarked on a process of trial and error until he wound up with a bike that would work for him. When Hutson started riding the bike around his hometown, a lot of people started commenting on it, noticing how comfortable it looked and wondering where he got it. Eventually he decided it would be worth manufacturing and figured out how to get it professionally engineered.
According to the company that produces the bicycle now, it has been well-received by people who haven't ridden a bike in a while, particularly those who stopped riding because of perineal numbness or neck, back, wrist or shoulder pain.
Personally, I was impressed by how much more restful and enjoyable cycling became for me. Now this is the only type of bike I ride. I was concerned at first that I couldn't stand up in the pedals, which I would typically do whenever I went up steep hills. However, I found that with the back rest for support, pedaling uphill was easy.
Within the mainstream biking world, this new, healthier option faces some obstacles. The primary barrier is aesthetics; an upright bicycle with a back rest looks quite different from a standard sleek, racing model. You will never be mistaken for a Tour de France competitor. On the other hand, you also won't walk away with the standard stiff neck, sprained wrist and sore behind.
The point is that if you're a cyclist or are considering starting to bike, or know someone who falls into either category, make sure you consider the health risks associated with many standard bike seats and forward-bent posture - as well as the healthier alternatives that are available these days. After all, making sure you're safe and comfortable is the number-one priority if you want to enjoy any activity over the long term and stick with it. Whether you plan on cycling as a form of exercise or as a great way to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with friends and family, you deserve to do it the right way and minimize your risk of injury.
Ben Benjamin, PhD, holds a doctorate in education and sports medicine, and was founder of the Muscular Therapy Institute. Dr. Benjamin has been in private practice for more than 45 years.