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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Hints on Cycling for Women, with Remarks on its Hygienic Value

by G. Ainslie Johnston, M.D., F.R.C.S.I.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 513-520


The general consensus of opinion of those who have tried cycling as a hygienic exercise is one of the enthusiastic approval. Some observers, however, speak of evil consequences, and the severest condemnation of it as an exercise for women has been pronounced by more than one medical authority. One this question, like some others, then, we doctors apparently differ; but I think this discrepancy can be explained, a little by prejudice, and chiefly on the ground that those who are in favour of cycling have a practical knowledge of the question, whilst those who have thought fit to warn the public against it have, as a rule, possessed only a theoretical acquaintance with it.

This pastime of cycling, not many months ago patronized in this country only by athletic youth, has now spread to all classes of the community and to both sexes. The recent immense improvement in machines and their accessories, and the health enjoyment and exhilaration to be gained by the exercise, have much to do with its popularity, and it has now come to stay; for although many who take up cycling as a fashionable craze will drop it, as they do anything else, there will remain a strong and increasing contingent, fully aware by personal practical experience of its health - as well as its pleasure-giving powers, who will rightly place it second to no existing recreation. The best machine for 99 women out of 100 is a bicycle: any good machine from some recognized firm; cheap machines are best avoided, costing much in trouble, annoyance and repairs. A bicycle is, I think, preferable to any machine with three or more wheels for the following, amongst other reasons: -- It is lighter, and takes up less room on the road and elsewhere; it requires only one smooth track instead of two or three. It is safer because it is not so liable to topple over when turning a corner, and in case of an occasionally spill you can always fall free of your machine if a bicycle, but are nearly sure to get more or less mixed up with some part of a tricycle, and may be injured by the spokes, &c. Fifteen months ago one of our leading monthly journals commenced an article entitled "Lady Bicyclists" as follows: "It is still more or less of an open question in England whether ladies can with propriety ride the bicycle"; but bicycles do not take long to cover the ground, and this reads now almost like ancient history. In order to derive the greatest amount of pleasure and health from cycling, and especially to avoid accidents, there are a few rules which should be learnt and remembered. (1st) When learning, or soon afterwards, learn to mount or dismount readily from both sides of your machine; this will often save an accident in a crowded street o a narrow country road. (2nd) Never ride without an efficient brake, and never use it: this may sound somewhat paradoxical, but it is nevertheless a useful rule in practice, though the latter part may be occasionally deviated from with advantage; but if you get into the habit of riding without using your brake you will soon acquire much more perfect control of your machine, especially with regard to "back-pedalling" going down a hill. (3rd) Never run down a hill with feet on the rests unless the road is straight and you can see well in front of you. (4th) Get a comfortable spring saddle and stick to it' when you get a new machine transfer your saddle to it. Do not ride with the saddle too high; the right height is attained when you can place the toes under the pedal at its lowest, keeping the foot parallel with the ground, without a stretch when the machine is upright. Have the handles sufficiently high to avoid the necessity for any stooping. Always, under any circumstances and everywhere, follow the rule of the road, that is, pass carriages or horses on the left side and overtake them on the right. This is a rule which many women do not think it worth while to attend to, though breaking it causes occasional accidents, and also renders you both morally and legally responsible for any damage caused to others by such accidents. Dress sensibly. Wear shoes, not boots, and do not place your feet too far on the pedals, so as to allow free motion to all the small joints of the foot' this will materially increase what is known ankle-motion, and thereby diminish exertion and fatigue. Wear a hat which will not blow off. On or two of the worse falls I have known have been caused by neglect of this little point; running downhill the hat has blown off suddenly, the hands have involuntarily gone up to catch it, and the machine and the rider have come down. All clothing round the body, neck and arms should be loose, to give free play for the increased circulation, the contraction of the muscles, the expansion of the lungs, and the increased action of the heart. The underclothing should be light but warm' perhaps the best material for summer wear is the "Cellular" cloth, which is exceedingly light, but is formed so that it encloses and retains a considerable quantity of air near the skin, which, acting as a non-conductor, prevents too rapid radiation o heat from the body. The skirt is the great difficulty in women's bicycling apparel. It should be worn at least three or four inches from the ground. You will not then tread on it when mounting nor entangle it in your pedals when dismounting' but still it is attended with two obvious disadvantages: --

(1st) When you ride fast, or there is a wind, the skirt will catch the wind and blow out behind, thus tending, perhaps, to blow you off your balance, and at any rate retard progress and increasing exertion; this can be partly obviated by doing away with all superfluous width, leaving only sufficient to allow of a comfortable stride in walking.

(2nd) The action of the knees tends to cause the skirt to work up in front; this can be obviated either by having it weighted or, still better, by having two pieces of elastic about ten inches long sewn or fastened in front near the bottom of the inside of the hem and parallel with it: if these straps are slipped or buttoned over the ankles before mounting the machine, they will keep the skirt down and will not show. Personally I look confidently forward to near future, believing that English women will soon cast aside foolish insular prejudice, and, following the example of their Continental sisters, will adopt for cycling the much safer, more rational, and, I think, more graceful "rational costume."

When riding, keep the mouth shut; this not only looks much less idiotic, prevents thirst, and keeps out the dust, but also acts as a safety or warning valve; for as long as the mouth can without conscious effort be kept shut and the breathing be comfortably carried on by the normal physiological channels, the heart is not over-taxed; but if the mouth has to be opened for the purpose of breathing, this is a sign that more air is required by the blood pumped through the lungs by the heart than can gain access by the normal physiological channels, and is the beginning of a strain that may prove injurious.

It is not wise to start for a ride of any length for, at least, half-an-hour after a meal, and after a similar ride not to commence a meal till you have had twenty minutes rest, as the blood cannot be in two places at once, and when it is circulating chiefly in the muscles and limbs it cannot be properly performing its work in the digestive organs. Abstain from alcohol in any form while riding, as it interferes with the oxidizing action of the blood and prevents the proper throwing out of C.O2 [1], therefore undoing the good of the exercise. Drink little of anything; the best drink to take is - nothing, the next best, milk and soda, lemonade (made from real live lemons, not the sweetened solution of sulphuric acid sold in bottles or siphons), weak tea, oatmeal and water, or, where it can be obtained, buttermilk is, perhaps, preferable to anything else except good water. Several of the foregoing hints apply equally to any form of active exercise, but cycling has certain great advantages over all other forms which are attainable by the multitude. The amount of exertion can be graduated more easily, and to a greater range or extent, in cycling than in any other form of exercise, and this is what renders it capable of being healthy and enjoyable to almost everybody, if a little common sense attends its practice. All active exercise increases the circulation of the blood and the rapidity and depth of breathing, thereby causing a free irrigation of the tissues and organs of the body with a plentiful supply of highly oxygenated blood, much the best means of keeping the body tissues in a state of healthy tone, and preventing the oncoming of very many diseases and morbid states which are due to the retention in the body of imperfectly oxidized products. It may be laid down as a general rule that the increase of the circulation and oxidation is in proportion to the work done, or effort exerted. This can be measured by the amount of C.O.2 produced, and, to a certain extent, by the resulting fatigue, although fatigue largely depends, also, on the amount of will, or conscious voluntary effort, exerted; movements that are largely automatic, giving rise to but little fatigue, those requiring strong and voluntary effort being most exhausting. If we take the muscle called the heart as an example, which weighs only about ten ounces and is entirely independent in its action of the will, we find it continually, night and day, does work equal to raising a weight of over (Haughton) five tons a foot high every hour. No voluntary muscle could stand such an expenditure of force without speedy failure. This is also seen when learning to cycle. At first, a learner finds a short ride fatiguing. Largely because every movement demands a conscious voluntary effort, but, in a short time, the learner become proficient, and cycling then becomes largely automatic, as the balance is maintained and the pedals are worked almost without conscious effort, and thus a proficient cyclist combines extensive movement, producing free circulation and oxygenation, with but slight effort or subsequent fatigue. Let us take, for example, a bicycle mounted by a rider on a good level road. The force necessary to propel it, say fifty yards, is infinitesimal in comparison with that which is required o walk the same distance. After the start, the effort necessary to keep the machine in motion at a pace that requires the least effort is very trifling, and yet the legs are being subjected to a rapidity and extent of movement as great , if not greater, than in running. That they are not doing corresponding work is proved by the fact that they tire but little, and by the absence of breathlessness, which is the physiological manifestation of the accumulation of C.O.2 and, therefore, the exact measure of the muscular work done. But, in cycling, not only the lower extremities, but all the muscles of the body are thrown into movement (the arms for guidance and the muscles of the trunk for constantly maintaining the balance). But that the work done is trifling in proportion to the extent of the movement is proved by the state of the breathing. (Also by the state of the blood, which has been found to be in an arterial or oxidized state, issuing from the muscles of a cyclist after riding at moderate speed, proving that very little C.O.2 was produced, therefore very little actual work was performed by the muscles in spite of the rapid movement.) [2]

As it is quite impossible for mechanical action to be absolutely lost, what is not used for the propulsion of the machine must be utilized as internal heat, etc. As the respiration is both quickened and deepened we have a free entrance of oxygen, and, consequently, a free circulation of blood through the lungs, whilst at the same time the peripheral circulation is also actively promoted by the increased muscular movements and the active combustion of the tissues resulting from the increased heat and abundant supply of oxygen. Thus by moderate cycling we have all the tissues of the body refreshed, purified and strengthened by an abundant supply of life-giving, highly oxygenated blood, without a corresponding accumulation of venous products, and we can thus literally obtain a kind of "wholesome intoxication," which Thoreau said he gained by living in the open air. Of course, all this applies only to moderate cycling, on a good machine, and on fairly good and level roads; but if an exercise is required for really working the muscles the cycle will do as well and better than anything else, either by increasing the speed, the choice of hilly roads, or riding against the wind. With increased effort comes increased work, and here resides the great value of cycling for pleasure and health, namely, in the possibility of varying the degree of effort expended from the very gentlest, almost passive, to the most extremely active movement, so that it is possible for it, appropriately carried out, to suit nearly all conditions and constitutions.

Dr. Lucas Championniere, who has, perhaps, had , ,ore experience of women cyclists than any other member of the medical profession, in a lecture before the French Association for the Advancement of Sciences, lays stress on this point. "Elle est essentiellement mesurable," he says, "a tous les moments. Elle ne donne un exercise de force, que sur des rampes ou pour la vitesse. Vous pouvez mesurer son action, vous pouvez doser progressivement vos pratiques d'excitation musculaire, et ce fait de la progression et du mesurage en fait le veritable exercise de la femme."

Cycling, then is a special exercise which, when properly carried out, differs from other forms of exercise by being readily graduable from the very feeblest, almost passive, to the most vigorous active movement, by flushing the circulation with highly oxygenated blood, instead of leading to venous accumulation, and by the comparable absence of fatigue, which renders it so exhilarating and tonic. As a thoroughly hygienic means of keeping the body in the most perfect state of health, and of warding off any tendency to disease, I cannot imagine a better mode than the abundant irrigation of the tissues with richly oxygenated blood, which is at once produced by cycling on a good road at a moderate rate of speed without fatigue or injury, provided the distance is not excessive. Of course, a few words of caution and advice are necessary to some enthusiasts and beginners who are tempted to take too long rides, or to ride up hills which it would be wiser for them to walk up. Like any other form of exercise it is liable to be injurious if continued after fatigue has set in, and when cycling is followed by loss of appetite or sleeplessness it is, of course, being carried to excess for the individual and the distance or the speed, or both, should be diminished. Also, serious injury may be caused to some by forcing a machine uphill. A proficient rider, used to hilly country, can easily ride up any hill a horse would trot up; but, with regard to hills, it is certainly wisest to be on the safe side, and both you and your machine may live longer and will lose nothing by walking up any hill that requires much effort to ride up. May I repeat that a little caution is not a bad thing in a crowded thoroughfare, or going down a hill with a curve in it, or which you cannot see the end of, for when cycling I think we may say, "It is better to be a coward for ten minutes than a corpse for the rest of your life."

As a preventative and even remedy for certain bodily and mental states which are often hardly diseases but certainly are not health, cycling wisely used is unparalleled. For low spirits, for being :out of sorts," for nervous troubles, for headache, for biliousness, for dyspepsia, all generally caused by defective circulation in some part of the digestive system it is an almost sure preventative and often a sovereign remedy. For a tendency to anaemia, chlorosis or any other impoverished blood states, steel administered in the form of a wheel is often more efficacious than in any other form.

As a stimulant to nutrition in intellectual fatigue or mental overwork, for strengthening weak lungs, for the relief of monotony and the dispersal of melancholia, as well as for many other morbid states too numerous to mention (this article is not an advertisement for any patent machine), cycling holds the field; it carries off literary and other sedentary people to fresh scenes in fresh air, while the management of the machine demands sufficient attention to ensure change of thought without requiring sufficient to cause fatigue. Cycling has already added an undreamt of enjoyment to the lives of many. It has enabled dwellers in smoky towns to make intimate acquaintance with the blessed country. It has thus varied their lives, and it has given them fresh air, fresh interests, fresh friends (inanimate as well as animate), fresh health. It has widened their spheres of thought and action; and although the women of this country "hung fire" for some time in taking up cycling, it has already done them an amount of social, moral and physical good which is simply incalculable, and I think we may confidently expect that largely increasing numbers will take advantage of this "heaven sent" exercise for women; and as time goes on we will have greater and greater numbers of cycling English women, or as the Chinese describe them, "foreign devils riding little mules by the ears, and kicking them in the sides to make them go."

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[1] C.O.2 or carbonic acid gas, as it is often called, is the final product of the using up of the tissues of he body; it is continually being produced, and is very injurious if retained. It is thrown out nearly altogether by the lungs in the process of respiration, and the quicker and more completely it is thrown out when formed, the more perfect the health of the body. C.O.2 is the most fully oxidized form of carbon C, if a plentiful supply of oxygen (O) is not available, intermediate products (such as C.O.) are formed in the body, which are much more poisonous than C.O.2 and are not so easily thrown out. Alcohol is injurious during exercise as it diminishes oxidation (or the power of the tissues to join with oxygen), and therefore tends to the production of these more injurious intermediate products, instead of C.O.2, and also by interfering with the proper throwing off of C.O.2 when formed.

[2] "Cycling and Health," O..Jennings, M.D., Paris