|"A Rake's Progress" is the title of a series of 8 paintings (and 8 parallel engravings) by William Hogarth chronicling the fall of a young man. It begins with the first painting, depicting his inheritance of his father's fortune, and ends with the eighth picture, shown above, where he has lost everything and is confined to the Bedlam insane asylum. This series provides the title for this post, which chronicles my fall from fitness until I restarted cycling in 2008.|
Perhaps I overestimate the importance of aerobic exercise, activities like running or cycling, for a healthy lifestyle. Other important factors include not smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, stress reduction, healthy eating, weight control, and regular medical care to name the most obvious. My personal healthy living scorecard is mixed; I have never smoked but I am 40 pounds overweight, for example. Even just considering exercise, aerobic exercise is supposed to be only one part of a plan that also includes strength training, flexibility training, and for a man my age, exercises to maintain balance. The press1 loves to print alarmist headlines (that's what sells ads after all) and there is one headline that has been popping up recently stating that 80% of Americans fail to meet the minimal standards of exercise set by the US Government's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It is always a good idea to go past the headline and read the entire article, identify the source for that article, confirm that the source is reputable, and even read the original source to make sure the press quoted it correctly. That is what I did when I encountered the "80% of Americans don't exercise" article, and the source is a study by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What that study consisted of was to ask people about their activities in pursuit of two parts of the HHS exercise goals, aerobic exercise and strength training. It turns out that, as the headline reported, only 20% of people surveyed reported that they had met the minimum requirements for both, but that was mostly a deficiency in strength training; 29% of those surveyed met the strength guideline, 52% met the aerobic guideline, and 20% met both.
What are these guidelines from the HHS that we, as Americans, are not meeting? In the first place, the guidelines are considered a minimum; people are encouraged to go beyond them. Secondly, the minimum guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (e.g. brisk walking) and two sessions of strength building exercises per week. I said at the start of this post that I may overestimate the importance of the aerobic part of this, but perhaps not. Reading between the lines, I get the impression that HHS agrees with me that the aerobic component provides more of a health benefit than do the other components, so perhaps my focus on aerobic exercise is not misguided. In this post, I will focus on the decisions and circumstances led me to become one of the 48% of Americans who fail to do enough aerobic exercise; a decades long journey from being an active cyclist to a couch potato. In a future post, I will provide an overview of my return to grace as an active cyclist in 2008.
Thinking back on my golden age of my cycling, when I was in High School and College, my cycling may not have been as perfect a source of healthy exercise as my rosy memories might suggest. Although it is likely that I significantly exceeded the minimum average of 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, a single weekend ride often exceeded 400 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, the problem was that this exercise was not evenly distributed over the week. That said, I did bicycle to school every day, and between that and the major weekend activities, this was probably enough to keep me healthy. Although I have no records to back me up, I suspect I rode fewer miles in college than I did in high school, though I did go on regular training rides with the Berkeley Wheelmen and I suspect that, even in college, I got enough aerobic exercise for health.
Graduate School was much harder than undergraduate; finding time for regular exercise became more of a challenge, a challenge I did not meet. I have no records of any exercise I did while in grad school, I don't even remember if I walked, biked, or drove to school. I did go for the occasional bike ride, especially when I started dating my future wife, but I doubt it was enough to meet the minimum guidelines for aerobic exercise. Things got a bit better during my four years of postdoctoral training as I biked to work, but then collapsed completely when my wife and I got real jobs, moved to the suburbs, bought a house, and had our first child. Work was too far to bike and there were the logistics of day care, so for over 25 years, I did virtually no aerobic exercise.
In 1993, changing interests caused me to leave academic science to form a one man consultancy focused on bioinformatics, the use of computers to advance medical research. The increased flexibility that came from being my own boss should have allowed me to begin a regular exercise program, but somehow it didn't, a couch potato I remained.
In 1991, my older son joined Boy Scouts. At first, this had little impact on my (lack of) exercise, but as he got older, he became increasingly frustrated with the activities of his troop, finding them an inadequate challenge. When I asked the other, more experienced parents about that, I found that high adventure camps were available for older scouts, but that adult volunteers were necessary to make that happen, so in 1996 (at age 47), I volunteered to help lead a backpacking trip in the famous Philmont High Adventure Camp. I was appropriately apprehensive about a major backpacking trip after 25 years of sloth, so my son and I began a regimen of morning runs which, when supplemented by the weekly exercises organized by the trip leader, got me into good enough shape that I had no difficulty on the the trip.
In 1999 (at age 50), while vacationing in Canada, my older son and I borrowed mountain bikes from the lodge where we were staying and hit the trails. I was utterly embarrassed, I was not at all able to keep up with my 16 year old son, my legs gave out on me in minutes. I think the difference between my success in 1996 and my failure in 1999 was the difference in preparation; I prepared extensively for the 1996 backpacking trip, but then returned to life as a couch potato so was utterly unprepared for a mountain biking adventure.
By 2001, my former academic home had finally discovered the value of bioinformatics, and I returned, first as a consultant, but then as a faculty member. I worked under a fierce taskmaster who made sure that I had no free time; there was little opportunity for exercise. In 2003 (at age 54), my younger son wanted to attend a Boy Scout high adventure camp in California, and again I volunteered. Having been so successful in 1996 and under intense pressure at work, my preparation was much less than in 1996. I was also 30 pounds heavier, and I struggled to complete the trip. That should have been my wakeup call, but rather than rise to the challenge, I fell into despair. In 2004, my work situation changed such that I potentially had more time for exercise. In 2005 (at age 56), I was volunteered for a second high adventure camp, one which promised to be more challenging than the previous two, and I took it very seriously. Because this was a sea-based adventure, my exercise plan involved mostly swimming. I dramatically improved my fitness as evidenced by performance improvement during training, but was still woefully underprepared for the trip despite having made an heroic effort to prepare. Whereas some of my previous failures could be blamed on lack of preparation, this one had to be blamed on age and/or obesity. When I got back, I was determined to not return to my slothful ways, but found that swimming was a difficult form of exercise to maintain. Also, I had found that my major deficiency on the trip had been upper body strength, strength training had become all the rage, so I took up weight lifting. I kept this up for about a year, and my strength improved dramatically over that time, but it was always a chore, never a joy, and so gradually, I would skip a day, skip a week, and then found I wasn't lifting weights anymore. I then picked up a wonderful book entitled Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels and took up running. I enjoyed running a lot more than weight lifting (I think I am an endurance athlete by temperament) and again, improved rapidly, but in this case, experienced over-training for the first time in my life. I had been gradually increasing the lengths of my runs. I managed a six mile run, and felt like I had a marathon in sight! However, the next week, I felt dramatically worse and had to turn back on my attempt to simply repeat those six miles. In retrospect, this was the result of over-training; my body needed time to recover after my push to work up to a six mile run, and I had not given it that time. The discouragement of the setback along with the essential tedium of running resulted in my abandoning yet another training plan.
So why did I not try cycling, the aerobic exercise of choice from my youth? A major barrier to my resumption of cycling was the lack of a working bicycle. After decades of hanging in my garage, none of my bikes were ridable. I had always maintained my own bikes, but was way out of practice, had lost any connection with a source of repair parts, and there was so much to do, that bringing my bikes back to rideability just wasn't getting done. I checked out a local bike shop and they encouraged me to consider purchasing a new bike rather than trying to repair my obsolete old bikes. They had me test ride one of their bottom of the line bikes, a hybrid that sold for under $400. I was entranced! Just exploring the neighborhood around the shop brought back all the transcendent joy of riding a bicycle. In the end, I opted to have my decrepit Bianchi Specialissima repaired rather than purchase a new bike and I was on the road again!
So, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. This post contains a lot of words about me, what's the point? The point is that Joe Friel, my favorite bicycle training author, just released a new book for older cyclists entitled Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life. I haven't decided yet if I will be purchasing it, but if I don't, it will be because it isn't about people like me; Joe's latest book is about 1) older athletes who have 2) remained fit their entire lives and who 3) have the genes to be competitive amateur bicycle racers. Although I qualify for the first, I don't for the second and third. I have been posting to this blog for almost three years now, over 100 posts, and in my second post I said:
Everyone is different, of course, and we are each different people at the different times in our lives. In my research, I read many stories of cyclists who "never train" but ride 1200 km brevets with ease. I think I might have been one of those people, even into my 40s. However, I am not now one of those people, and you might not be either. I hope some of the things I found in my experimentation will encourage you to find something as enjoyable and as effective for you as this return to cycling has been for me.I see this blog as a place for me to talk about one particular cyclist who happens to be me who is a representative of what is, in my opinion, an under-documented class: people with an average set of genes, not destined to be successful bicycle racers, who have neglected their fitness for much of their lives but who, at an older age, decide to improve their health by taking up cycling. Does this describe you? If so, I'd love to hear about your experiences!
1) Like most people these days, I get most of my news online. Thus, for press read not just newspapers and magazines but the rich variety of sources on the Internet as well, and for headline, etc. read the equivalent parts of these online resources.