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:: Health and Fitness

Remember the feeling of first learning to ride a bicycle on your own—without training wheels and without a parent's balancing hand? Remember that sudden rush of freedom?

If you have to strain to think back that far, well, maybe it's time to strap on a helmet and saddle up. Because not only is bicycling fun and freeing, it's an excellent way to get healthy exercise.

That's one of the reasons that sixty million Americans bicycle. Whether you're an avid mountain biker or simply trying to incorporate cycling into your daily routine, you too can reap the many health benefits of bicycling.

This has never been more important until now. An alarming number of Americans are becoming more sedentary and obese and consequently risking their lives, reports the Center for Disease Control. "Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any disease epidemic," warns CDC director Jeffrey Kaplan.

In recent studies the CDC found that thanks to the American lifestyle of convenience and inactivity, cycling and walking have been replaced by automobile travel for all but the shortest distances. That's why we've got to make bicycling convenient again.

Even small increases in light to moderate activity will produce measurable benefits among those who are least active. Cycle for pleasure, but try to integrate bicycling wherever you can: a trip to the store, to a sporting event or party, to a concert, to a friend's house. Try cycling to work at least once a month, and then once a week.

You'll shape up, and your body will thank you. Because you'll reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and other chronic and life-threatening illnesses. You'll lower your health care costs. And while you're enhancing your physical health, you'll improve your mental outlook and overall quality of life.

Even older adults can cycle. Just visit any country outside the United States and you'll see the proof positive. Regular exercise provides a myriad of health benefits for senior adults including a stronger heart, a positive mental outlook and an increased chance of remaining indefinitely independent - a benefit that will become increasingly important as our population ages in the coming years.

Once upon a time, kids represented the largest cycling population. But thanks to a number of contributing factors- among them, unsafe neighborhoods, heavy traffic, and a de-emphasis on physical activity- American children spent 15% less time bicycling in 1998 than they did eight years ago. And kids who cycle infrequently grow up to be adults who cycle less- or not at all.

The solution? It's easy. In fact, it's just like learning to ride a bicycle all over again.