ToolBox: The Health Benefits of Training
Most frequently, coaches write about training and racing on a bike with the goal of improving an athlete’s performance. Improving performance on the bike is why we dedicate so much time and sacrifice so much of our busy lives. Performance improvement is very important and requires an immense amount of time, patience, and effort to attain. But is it the only reason we ride and train?
Most of our readers compete and train on their bike as a hobby. Most are masters athletes and as such, have jobs, families, and other “real life” commitments. We all wish we could race and train more, but realize it is not possible. Don’t fear, the time you spend on the bike has another major benefit that may actually be more important. That advantage is the Health Benefit of riding a bike and the positive physical effects is has on us as we age.
I realize I am diving into a potentially very complex medical topic here. The health benefits of sport can be detailed and broken down into multiple categories (cardiovascular, metabolic, psychological, lifestyle, etc.) but this article will take a general approach. Although research in this area is relatively scarce and vague, we want to present some basic ideas that doctors and researchers recognize as being related to the sport of cycling and exercise in general.
Let’s start by looking at some basic statistics here in the United States:
• In 2004, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that only 10.5% of Americans over the age of 18 exercised 5+ times per week. The CDC defines exercise per day as 10+ minutes. Yes, you read that correctly, 10 minutes! Most cyclists take twice that long just to warm up!
• Nearly two-thirds of US adults are over-weight and nearly one-third is obese. The CDC uses the Body Mass Index (BMI) to determine this particular statistic. Over-weight is a BMI greater than 25; obese is greater than 30. And although we realize that BMI is not a perfect tool to determine this statistic, all you have to do is walk around these days and see where the general trend is going; people are heavy!
Ouch! Given those two statistics, do you understand why training on a bike is not just about improving performance?
Other than crashing, sunburn, and some researchers saying that you increase your health risk from free radicals damaging your body (we will leave that topic for them to debate), the health benefits out-weigh any possible down side. Here are just a few of the many benefits:
• Metabolic- Exercise helps to maintain a healthier body weight and improves insulin resistance. Diabetes risk increases with age, and regular exercise helps to reduce this risk. Regular exercise also improves our cholesterol profile, particularly the good cholesterol (HDL), which is an important anti-oxidant. Regular exercise also helps to reduce blood pressure and the prevalence of hypertension is greater than 50% by the age of 60.
• Cardiovascular and respiratory function – Our vascular system ages along with rest of us (and in the majority of us, death is caused by diseases of the blood vessels, primarily from atherosclerosis.) Our blood vessels and heart become stiffer (lose compliance) and there is a decline in our maximal heart rate as well as maximal oxygen uptake (Max V02). Ongoing training can blunt this decline.
• Strength – Maximal strength decreases with age and possibly can be linked to a loss of fast twitch (2B) fibers. Although cycling provides mostly aerobic benefits, combining it with strength and resistance training provides a more complete program. It’s important for masters athletes to balance their cycling training with other areas of conditioning. Yoga, pilates and some weight work in the gym can all help.
• Training and proper nutrition can delay age-related changes in body composition – As we age, fat-free mass decreases, fat mass increases, there is a decrease in muscle and bone mass and we eat more (ice cream.)
• Psychological and lifestyle– Training gives us a great outlook on life, allowing us to explore and enjoy so much of the outdoors that is unique to cycling. How often have you experienced some form of stress, gone for a training ride or raced and come back feeling more refreshed and ready to take on life? That alone is enough reason to ride a bike and appreciate the cycling lifestyle! It’s also a reason to tell your boss that you require a three-hour lunch to improve your job performance.
• Longevity – Cycling is easier on the body because of being a low weight bearing sport. It’s something that we can do for years without the possible wear and tear associated with other sports like running. It seems like a lot of time, cycling is the choice of doctors for rehabilitation of knees and other sports injuries.
At AthletiCamps, we take both a performance and health perspective when working with athletes. It is absolutely amazing to me how fit and healthy active adults are who have continued some form of training throughout their lives. It is also amazing how athletes who have taken a major break in activity or are just getting started can still improve. VO2’s and wattages at threshold are off the scale and seem to be improving year after year! More riders are fitter and stronger than ever.
If you are just getting started in the sport or are looking for motivation, the health benefits of being a bike racer or enthusiast should be enough to keep the fire burning. The bottom line here is that a good solid training program is a healthy way to live your life. Training cannot stop the process of aging and your individual genetics, but can surely lessen the impact of aging on performance. It’s like using a parachute to jump versus a free fall. So next time you’re out on the road suffering through some anaerobic repetitions, or training on a cold day, wondering why you are out there, remember that you really are doing this for your health.
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.