My main problem with cycling is the major emphasis on cycling fitness rather than health and longevity. Let’s face it, the large majority of cyclists aren’t competitive professionals. Nor do we want to be. We ride for fun and to improve and maintain our health. But the emphasis on improving speed, distance, power output, and other measures of fitness create this disconnect. These things are important to winning races. They are not especially important to improving health and living a long time. In fact, they may actually be working against it.
Do you care about your VO2 max or lactic threshold? Me either. What I do care about is reducing my likelihood of suffering from the diseases of civilization (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, i.e. diseases that were extremely rare in our pre-agricultural past), keeping body fat low while retaining muscle mass, and having fun. Will endless, Puritanical struggling to improving your cycling fitness help achieve these goals? I doubt it, but before we get to that, let’s talk about the Paleo lifestyle.
Paleo is a lifestyle that improves health and compresses the morbidity of the end of life through approximating the environment in which human genes evolved. This is accomplished through modifying diet and exercise to better match the diet and exercise of our ancient ancestors from the Paleolithic Period, where the overwhelming majority of human evolution occurred. Present your genes with the environment (including the food and exercise) they expect, and they will reward you with optimal health. Think of a wild animal in captivity in a zoo. It will get sick, get fat, get depressed, fail to reproduce or it’s off-spring won’t survive infancy, but all of the effects of captivity are reversed when it’s returned to the wild. We are animals and modern life is the “zoo” deterring us from the environment to which we are adapted. We can approximate a return to the wild to achieve optimal health, leaving behind modern food and physical stresses to which human genes are poorly adapted. That’s Paleo in a nutshell.
Does cycling fit into this perspective? Like most questions, the answer is “it depends,” but assuming we’re considering the type of cycling that cycling culture encourages, the answer is definitely “no.”
I’m talking about cycling long distances, at consistently high heart rates, while consuming a steady stream of high-sugar drinks and foods. There is nothing in our ancestral past that would suggest that our genes are adapted to exercising this way. This type of exercise goes by the pejorative “chronic cardio” within the Paleo community, and for good reason.
Beyond the evolutionary argument, there is emerging science that suggests that lifelong endurance cycling is bad for your heart,[1,2] your bones,[3-5] your muscles, and potentially increases your risk of cancer. Abusing sugary “sports drinks” and foods might lead to metabolic derangement (then diabetes), and there are some scientific clues that sugar consumption might be one of the causes of aging.[8,9] Beyond that, a fragile skeleton and low muscle mass are well-established harbingers of an early grave.[10-12]
Is that worth shaving 30 seconds off your 40k time trial time? It is for some, and to each his own. The point I want to make is that the perception that endurance athletes are a model for optimal human health is flat wrong. Just ask this one. Some love cycling enough to make this sacrifice. Some are competitive professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to it. For them, this trade-off in health is OK. But most of us don’t want to go down that road. We want to maximize health and longevity, and we want to include cycling to do it. To do this we must recognize that cycling fitness and health are not always directly related.
That’s why I created this blog. To explore evolutionarily-informed cycling and health, and to challenge the dominant fitness-maximizing paradigm in cycling that, I believe, comes at the expense of health.
1. Wilson M, O’Hanlon R, Prasad S, Deighan A, Macmillan P, Oxborough D, Godfrey R, Smith G, Maceira A, Sharma S, George K, Whyte G. Diverse patterns of myocardial fibrosis in lifelong, veteran endurance athletes. J Appl Physiol. 2011 Jun;110(6):1622-6. Epub 2011 Feb 17. PubMed PMID: 21330616; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3119133.
2. Luthi P, Zuber M, Ritter M, Oechslin EN, Jenni R, Seifert B, Baldesberger S, Attenhofer Jost CH. Echocardiographic findings in former professional cyclists after long-term deconditioning of more than 30 years. Eur J Echocardiogr. 2008 Mar;9(2):261-7. PubMed PMID: 17470417.
3. Smathers AM, Bemben MG, Bemben DA. Bone density comparisons in male competitive road cyclists and untrained controls. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Feb;41(2):290-6. PubMed PMID: 19127198.
4. Medelli J, Lounana J, Menuet JJ, Shabani M, Cordero-MacIntyre Z. Is osteopenia a health risk in professional cyclists? J Clin Densitom. 2009 Jan-Mar;12(1):28-34. Epub 2008 Oct 1. PubMed PMID: 18835799.
5. Campion F, Nevill AM, Karlsson MK, Lounana J, Shabani M, Fardellone P, Medelli J. Bone status in professional cyclists. Int J Sports Med. 2010 Jul;31(7):511-5. Epub 2010 Apr 29. PubMed PMID: 20432201.
6. Knechtle B, Baumann B, Wirth A, Knechtle P, Rosemann T. Male ironman triathletes lose skeletal muscle mass. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2010;19(1):91-7. PubMed PMID: 20199992.
7. Reichhold S, Neubauer O, Bulmer AC, Knasmüller S, Wagner KH. Endurance exercise and DNA stability: is there a link to duration and intensity? Mutat Res. 2009 Jul-Aug;682(1):28-38. Epub 2009 Feb 20. Review. PubMed PMID: 19699460.
8. Lee SJ, Murphy CT, Kenyon C. Glucose shortens the life span of C. elegans by downregulating DAF-16/FOXO activity and aquaporin gene expression. Cell Metab. 2009 Nov;10(5):379-91. PubMed PMID: 19883616; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2887095.
9. Ruckenstuhl C, Carmona-Gutierrez D, Madeo F. The sweet taste of death: glucose triggers apoptosis during yeast chronological aging. Aging (Albany NY). 2010 Oct;2(10):643-9. Review. PubMed PMID: 21076182; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2993794.
10. Topinková E. Aging, disability and frailty. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52 Suppl 1:6-11. Epub 2008 Mar 7. Review. PubMed PMID: 18382070.
11. Sirola J, Kröger H. Similarities in acquired factors related to postmenopausal osteoporosis and sarcopenia. J Osteoporos. 2011;2011:536735. Epub 2011 Aug 28. PubMed PMID: 21904688.
12. Ensrud KE, Ewing SK, Taylor BC, Fink HA, Stone KL, Cauley JA, Tracy JK, Hochberg MC, Rodondi N, Cawthon PM; for the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures Research Group. Frailty and risk of falls, fracture, and mortality in older women: the study of osteoporotic fractures. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007 Jul;62(7):744-51. PubMed PMID: 17634322.