Hi, Gilly here. Inspired by a National Geographic TV series that I recently binged on, this month, I have been looking into the broader health benefits of mountain biking.
The series Limitless follows Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, exploring different ways to live a better and longer life. Each of the six episodes focus on a different topic, such as stress, shock and memory and blends a challenge with the science and benefits of making relevant lifestyle changes. This is all supported and supervised by a team of experts, including Ross Edgley (British extreme athlete, world record holder, sports scientist, author and researcher) and Dr Peter Attia (Canadian medical practitioner, longevity coach, athlete and podcaster).
Whilst I enjoyed the whole series, it was episode 4, “Strength”, which really resonated with me. When you hear ‘Thor’ and ‘strength’ in the same sentence, you can be forgiven for thinking the programme is going to be about building muscle mass, which they touched on, but it is the links they made between muscle, endurance sport and longevity that I found really interesting.
In this context, endurance doesn’t refer to the discipline of mountain biking known as ‘enduro,’ it is the generic term for a prolonged physical/aerobic activity; we are probably looking at a minimum of two rides a week of at least two hours, including climbs.
Now for the science bit in a non-scientific fashion – almost every cell in our body contains thousands of mitochondria. The main function of mitochondria is to combine carbohydrate molecules from our food and oxygen that we breathe to produce energy. The parts of the body that have the highest energy demands are the brain, muscles, liver, heart and kidney, which don’t work properly without this energy.
When we exercise, the rate of energy used by our muscles increases and our mitochondria respond to meet this energy demand. They reproduce by growing larger and dividing and are often referred to as the muscles’ power supply. Alongside providing energy, the mitochondria in our muscles activate immune cells, hence the link between an endurance sport and longevity. The longer you work your muscles the more active your mitochondria are (slowing down the ageing process) and the more active your immune cells are (defending against infection).
This was demonstrated in this episode, which featured retired British medical scientist Professor Norman Lazarus who commissioned a study at King’s College London looking at the link between cycling and improved immunity. An octogenarian now, he started cycling in his fifties and noticed over time that along with feeling great, he never seemed to suffer illness, and this was common amongst his cycling friends.
When I said, this resonated with me, it was because a few years ago my immune system was at its lowest following chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As part of my recovery and encouraged by a friend, I got my bike out and I haven’t looked back. I personally have experienced the ‘feel-good-factor’, weight loss and improved fitness – and I haven’t had a cold in ages!
From the reading around that I have done, it seems that riding regularly can help our bodies to be ‘biologically younger’ in a number of ways:
- Improving cardiovascular functioning, which lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity
- Raising the rate of respiration, which improves lung capacity
- Boosting blood fow and oxygen to the brain, which fires and regenerates receptors, improving certain functions such as planning, observation and creativity
- Releasing and regulating hormones, including endorphins and adrenaline, which helps with relaxation, stress reduction and improved motivation
- Raising the body’s metabolic rate, which burns calories and fat, helping weight management
- Helping with gut health by stimulating the contraction of intestinal muscles, decreasing the time it takes food to move through the large intestine
- Winner, winner, chicken dinner (no pun intended)!
If you are not already hooked, I hope this inspires you to dust off your bike, hit the trails and have fun. Remember, if you have stories to share, please get in touch.