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Bike to work, get in shape, and save money

(MoneyWatch) It's time to get your butt in gear, and I mean that literally. May is National Bike Month, May 17-21 is Bike to Work Week, and May 21 is Bike to Work Day (in most parts of the country).

You won't get a better opportunity this spring to jumpstart your get in shape program, do your part to green-up the environment, save money for a vacation and, of course, impress everybody at the office.

According to the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), more than half of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of work. Considering how difficult it is for you to resist a piece of cake, you should be all over that. Even if you haven't ridden a bicycle since you were a little shift, you never forget how to do it.

I've been a cyclist for 30 years (including a stint as the editor of Bicycling magazine), and I can attest firsthand to the feasibility and fun of commuting on two wheels. But I suspect you may have a few excuses, which is why I'm going to deflate each one:

My bike predates the Eisenhower administration. Take it to your local bike shop for a tune up. If it's beyond hope, ask how much it's worth as a trade-in. Most shops will give you at least $50 towards a new ride.

I can't afford a new bike (or even a tune-up). Consider how much you're spending every day on fuel, parking, tolls and other driving-related expenses. LAB says that in some urban areas it's possible to save more than $200 per month by bike commuting. If you cycle to work only a few days per week, your investment will quickly pay for itself.

I live too far away. Drive part of the way, park your car, and pedal the rest. Or catch a ride to work and cycle home.

I need to dress up for my job. Stow extra clothes and personal care items at the office. Shuttle them in on days you drive. If your workplace lacks a shower find a nearby gym that offers a free trial membership and wash up there.

I barely get to work on time the way it is. Most first-time commuters are surprised that bike commuting doesn't take much longer (and is sometimes even quicker) than driving. (To estimate how long it will take you, multiply the distance by 10 -- the speed in mph that an average commuter travels.) Plus, you'll already have your workout in for the day. It's the ultimate form of multi-tasking.

There's way too much traffic. Don't pedal the same route you drive. Look for less-traveled roads or, if you have a mountain bike, even off-road trails. Since there's respect in numbers, try to talk co-workers into riding with you. Many cities promote Bike-to-Work Day heavily, so there's a chance they'll be fewer drivers and more riders then. Nonetheless, wear a helmet and a bright shirt.

I can tell you right now I won't like it. A study by the San Diego Association of Governments found that 1 out of 5 first-time commuters who participated in the city's Bike-to-Work Day became regular bicycle commuters.

I'm hopelessly out of shape. Assuming you don't work at the Mt. Washington Observatory, you should be able to pedal to work no sweat. Cycling is a weight-bearing exercise, which means your body doesn't get pounded as much as it does during, say, running. Plus, one of the fastest ways to shrink your inner tube is by bike commuting. Not only does a 10-mile roundtrip commute combust about 400 calories, but exercising twice in one day also keeps your metabolism cranking higher when you're at rest, which means you'll burn even more.

My employer won't understand. You might be surprised again. Researchers at the University of Bristol in England found that regular workouts help people do their jobs more efficiently and with less perceived stress. Plus, bike commuting saves 3.6 pounds of pollutants per mile compared to driving, which is another thing your company can boast about. Under the Bicycle Commuter Act, you may even be entitled to reimbursement of bike-commuting expenses up to $20 per month through your employer.

I can't do this myself. LAB maintains a database where you can see what events and support are being offered in your area. Some communities set up downtown "energizer stations" to distribute food and safety equipment. Others provide route-mapping assistance or even bike mentors to lead groups. Road Bike Rider newsletter also sells a 50-page, downloadable e-book called Bicycle Commuting for Fun & Profit, which is on sale this month for just $3.99 (regular price $12.95) in honor of National Bike Month.

Let's roll.

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