We are enjoying a lingering autumn here in the Far North, a climatic luxury that has temporarily suppressed our latent anxieties about the coming winter and extended the bicycling season beyond what we can reasonably expect. So My Lovely Wife and I have been pedaling around town as usual in recent days: weekday commutes across the river and up the hill to the office for me, midafternoon jaunts to the post office and coffee shop for her, and weekend forays together to the co-op for groceries or our local bistro for dinner.
On Saturday, we meandered westward along Minnehaha Creek in 70-degree sunshine, powering past joggers and moving aside for random clusters of cyclists who may have been exceeding the 10 mph speed limit. A half-hour later, we were lounging outside a coffee shop enjoying a cold beverage and checking our calendars to confirm that it was indeed November. Later, we headed a few blocks south for an early dinner. By the time we returned home we’d probably traveled all of eight miles. Didn’t really break a sweat.
We’ve never pretended that this was about getting fit; spandex shorts and bike jerseys are for serious cyclists. It’s simply a pleasant way to get around town. And it’s one of the few physical activities we can do together, as MLW’s bum knee limits her athletic pursuits.
But recent research suggests that our leisurely cycling adventures may be healthier than we think. Two separate studies showed that even a moderate amount of pedaling can reduce the risk of heart disease.
Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark recruited 45,000 Danish adults between the ages of 50 and 65 who bicycled to work or for recreation. Twenty years later, they found these cyclists had 11 to 18 percent fewer heart attacks than their noncycling counterparts.
It’s all about making moderate exercise part of your daily routine, said lead study author Anders Grontved, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of physical activity epidemiology. Even as little as 30 minutes on the bicycle each day can make a difference. “Finding time for exercise can be challenging for many people, so clinicians working in the field of cardiovascular risk prevention should consider promoting cycling as a mode of transportation,” he noted.
A similar study from Lund University in Sweden examined the effects of moderate bicycling on the various drivers of heart disease: chronic conditions such as obesity, high cholesterol and blood pressure, and prediabetes. They tracked more than 20,000 middle-age Swedes for 10 years and found that those who bicycled regularly had a significantly lower risk of obesity (39 percent), high blood pressure (11 percent), high cholesterol (20 percent), and diabetes (18 percent).
“The multiple advantages of active commuting over structured exercise may help clinicians convey a message that many patients will embrace more readily than being told to join a gym, go for a jog, or join a sports team,” said study author Paul Franks, PhD, a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Lund.
All this heart healthiness may apply only to Scandinavians. I mean, could you even find 65,000 middle-age Americans who commute on their bicycles? But I’m going to accept the good news anyway, because yet another study I stumbled upon last week suggests that folks who worry about heart attacks are more likely to experience one.
Besides, at some point winter’s going to hit and that’s enough for one guy to worry about.