aging · cycling

Want the health of a 20 year old at the age of 80? Ride a bike!

The big health and fitness headline this past week concerned the release of results of two studies of senior citizen cyclists. For those of us preaching the health benefits of exercise, it was amazing news.

There’s a New York Times article on the study that covers the main points: Exercise Can Keep Aging Muscles and Immune Systems ‘Young’.

The NYT piece begins by noting that our understanding of aging might be radically mistaken because so few older adults get any exercise at all.

“Exercise among middle-aged and older adults in the Western world is rare. By most estimates, only about 10 percent of people past the age of 65 work out regularly. So, our expectations about what is normal during aging are based on how growing older affects sedentary people.”

We’ve written about that before on our blog. One of our earliest posts was on aging as a lifestyle choice.

Again from the NYT story: “The two sets of scientists then dove into their data and both concluded that older cyclists are not like most of the rest of us. They are healthier. They are, biologically, younger. Their muscles generally retained their size, fiber composition and other markers of good health across the decades, with those riders who covered the most mileage each month displaying the healthiest muscles, whatever their age.”

Wow.

I’ve had lots of thoughts about these studies and about the good health of these elderly riders.

My first thought was that I’m really happy that I love to ride my bike.

Second thought, should people who don’t like cycling take it up? Should I be urging friends and family whose health I care about to get on their bikes? That’s not so clear. These aren’t studies that took people and assigned them to one of two groups, those who ride a lot and those who sit at home. Instead, it’s a study of those older adults who choose to ride. They’re a special group who chose not to stop riding big distances. Did their good health make their riding possible or did their riding cause their good health? We don’t know which direction the causation goes–maybe it’s a bit of both, a kind of virtuous circle, where one supports the other– but the results are pretty remarkable regardless.

Third thought, this is so not a moderate message. These cyclists were averaging 100 miles a week. That’s a lot of riding. At my best I aim for 5000 km a year. They’re averaging 5200 miles! Further, the benefits depended on dose. The riders who covered the most mileage each month displayed the healthiest muscles. You see them setting out for a 5 1/2 hour ride in the video above. This isn’t like the health messaging that says to go for a walk everyday. These guys are working super hard for hours at a time. They’re riding big distances year round.

They also love it.

From a BBC story on these cyclists:

Aged just 64, Jim Woods, is a comparative youngster in the group. He averages 100 miles a week on his bike, with more during the summer. He said: “I cycle for a sense of wellbeing and to enjoy our wonderful countryside.”

Fourth thought, we don’t know if this holds true for other forms of exercise. Maybe it’s riding bikes that’s magic and nothing else matters? Seems unlikely. It’s true though that cycling is something you can keep doing as you get older. Lots of older adults move from running to cycling at a certain point.

So lots of questions, but still, remarkable good news. The Fit is a Feminist Issue cyclists–hi Susan, Catherine, Cate, Kim, Nat!–should start planning riding trips for the big birthdays, 60, 70, 80, 90 etc. And maybe we should move somewhere warm for the winters. A fit feminist roving commune with lots and lots of bike riding. I’m in!

Photo by David on Unsplash

See also Lessons on Aging Well from a 105 Year Old Cyclist.

7 thoughts on “Want the health of a 20 year old at the age of 80? Ride a bike!

  1. I can’t believe this is specific to cycling. I suspect cycling simply resides in a sweet spot of cardio+resistance+low-impact that makes it relatively easy to sustain at high levels. (If your brain is compatible – let’s have no illusions. You could tell people 100 mi/week is the key all day long, and most will be unable to implement it.) Also, my impression as a cyclist who does some rowing is that the rowing community has a lot of this, too. Older rowers might be too small and too selected a group to be interesting as more than a curiosity, though – cycling is more accessible.

    Incidentally, the article says none were racers, but did they exclude (or include an analysis excluding) people with a *history* of competition? Competitive (as in, high likelihood of success) cyclists and rowers tend to have high, sometimes freakishly high, vo2max, at a level that I don’t think is accessible via conditioning. There are multiple pathways for selection for this stuff – physical, mental, and socioeconomic, of course, and no doubt epigenetic as well. In other words, yeah, definitely don’t promise people that just logging the miles is the key. 🙂

    Anyway, nice info for those of us who recognize ourselves in the participant base!

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  2. These were all people who identified as long distance, touring cyclists and they rode with groups who were oriented that way. I don’t know about their histories. I loved racing with the Vets club in Australia where there were 70-something year old men drafting me! I think after 80 you need a dr’s note to continue racing and there is concern in these clubs about tension between the youngsters (40 and 50 year olds) and the real seniors (60 to 80 and up). The former group is faster but the latter group has more time to train.

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  3. Oh, and I think cycling is just as you say in the sweet spot for strength, plus cardio, plus no impact on joints. Hard to beat. I rowed for a couple of seasons and thought it was similar in some ways.

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  4. There was a similar video going around this week about a group of senior cross country skiers who were skiing 100 km/week or so. Will share it with you if I can find it again.

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  5. Also, wrt “our expectations about what is normal during aging are based on how growing older affects sedentary people.” This relates to something that is very frustrating to me. I’m two years into post-menopause. It is VERY difficult to find information about the challenges of being a post-menopausal endurance athlete. Dr. Stacy Sims is the one researcher (that I have found) that writes about this. The drop-off in participation in the post-50 age groups in duathlons and running, is very disappointing but now that I am into the challenges of this time of life, I understand why there is the drop-off.

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