Fit, fast, and falling apart at the seams

December 8, 2012 § 16 Comments

This past year a number of fit, fast older cyclists here in Southern California have keeled over with various heart and cardiovascular ailments. The ones I know have survived. I’m sure that if they hadn’t been active cyclists, the illnesses would have been fatal.

We often treat cycling like it’s some kind of magic bullet against disease. It isn’t.

What cycling does, unfortunately, is mask some aspects of ill health by allowing us to engage in intense athletic activity. When we do the hard workout or finish the hard race, we imagine that we’re healthy. Sometimes, we aren’t.

The longest-lived people in the world, the Japanese, didn’t get that designation due to being competitive cyclists. They’re older than anyone else because of what they eat.

Every time I hear some cyclist proudly crow that “Cycling allows me to eat whatever I want,” I silently reply “No, it doesn’t.”

You can’t argue with the health benefits

I’ve met so many people who went from being a physical shambles to being in great health simply through cycling. A guy I used to be friends with in Japan, an undertaker, had high blood pressure, was about to go on beta-blockers, was at least eighty pounds overweight, had all kinds of joint pains, and looked about twenty years older than his real age of 40.

After one month of easy bicycling along the Tagawa bike path his blood pressure plunged to normal. After two months he’d dropped forty pounds. Once he upped the mileage and got “into” cycling he lost the remaining forty, shed an additional ten or fifteen, and became stronger and fitter than¬† he’d been since his football-playing days in high school.

While commuting home two weeks ago I ran into an older guy, mid-50’s, who’d also been told to drop fifty and get on blood pressure meds. Instead he started riding, and six months later, same thing: No need for medication, all the excess gone, and he was fit enough to do a daily climb up Via del Monte and a loop around the Hill after work.

Stories like this are so commonplace that they hardly bear repeating, as the pattern is the same. Person is fat and has high bp. Person takes up cycling. Person is transformed.

Cycling as an apology for bad habits

What we talk about less, especially among ourselves, is the other trajectory, the fit and fast cyclists whose lifestyles are posters for bad habits, but who, thanks to decades of hard athletic endeavor, can tolerate the abuse and still perform on the bike. They’re our friends, our acquaintances, our teammates.

Often as not, they’re shedding us from the group or breaking our legs, so who are we to criticize them?

What they also are is getting older, and no matter how tough or how able to tolerate the abuse, every human body has a limit where the booze or the grease or the big belly start to claim their due.¬† What I’ve seen this past year, and what I expect will become more commonplace as we age, is the “surprising” onset of heart disease among fit cyclists. It’s heart disease that would have or should have gotten underway lots earlier, and perhaps it did, but cycling somehow masked it or allowed the body to continue performing even as the illness progressed.

All this talk about health has made me hungry.

Pass the Hag bars, would you?

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