Last month Tom Mage and Jay Haavik, both from Seattle, rode their bikes from Glacier up the Mount Baker Highway almost 25 miles to the parking lot at Artist Point. They were part of an organized ride of several hundred cyclists, and finished in just over two hours, roughly a half hour to 45 minutes behind the fastest rider. They were nearly an hour faster than anyone in their age group has ridden the route in the eight years this organized ride – Ride 542 – has been offered.
Mage is 70, and Haavik is 66, ages when many people feel lucky to be able to walk across the parking lot of a mall. The oldest woman rider was 75-year-old Leah Tarlington from Bellingham, back for her third ride. She finished in just over four hours.
Mage, a retired academic and a first time rider in this particular event, was the oldest man in the ride. Just three days before he had been riding his mountain bike in the Himalayas. “I was over 15,400 feet for three nights, and crossed several passes higher than that, the highest at 17,400 feet,” Mage said.
To equal that elevation you could put the 4,300-foot elevation gain of the Ride 542 on top of Mount Baker and still have well over 2,000 feet left over. Even so, by the time riders get to Artist Point they’re above a quarter of the earth’s atmosphere (by density, not distance). But despite their age, these men and women are as fit as people decades younger, thanks to cycling.
Cycling is a great way for seniors to get aerobic exercise, which means a form of fitness which uses oxygen and the lungs instead of brute strength. It involves moving a small amount of weight or resistance many many times rather than a large amount of weight once. This type of exercise is generally very good for the heart and circulation, and some believe it helps reverse some of the physical effects of aging.
Gary Graham of Glacier is a cyclist and says that one of the ways this happens is that increased blood flow during exercise increases the fitness of the tiny muscles that encircle your arteries, meaning that you have better circulation all the time. “And getting tired means you sleep better,” he added.
Cycling can also aid in reducing symptoms of other health problems such as asthma, hypertension (high blood pressure), arthritis and especially depression, according to psychiatrist Lee Griffin. However, most programs advise that if you suffer from a heart condition, obesity, high blood pressure or other health problems, or if you are over 45 and a smoker, a physician should supervise any exercise program including checking to see that it’s suitable for your particular physical condition.
Sonny Mehan of Custer used cycling to get in shape prior to and after surgery to replace a defective heart valve. He was in his 50s when the need for some kind of surgery became evident, so he began riding as a regular exercise, gradually increasing his distance per outing from 10 to 25 to 45 miles. “I have regular routes I do in the morning and evening,” he said, “that usually involve hills but I try to avoid traffic and dogs.” He said that for the older rider there are many places one can take a bicycle to for slow and safe riding. Blaine’s residential neighborhoods south of H street are a good example, as is an area just west of the BP Cherry Point refinery locally known as West Cherry Point. A closed county road runs through it for two miles with a nice picnic area at the midway point, and automobiles are not allowed. Access is unregulated but allowed as long as you don’t block the gates at Grandview and Point Whitehorn Roads.
Perhaps the best example of someone who regained their health through cycling is seven time Tour de France champ and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Diagnosed with testicular cancer that had metastasized into his brain in 1996, he was back riding the tour three years later and won. And won the next six to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Armstrong, of course, isn’t a senior. Yet. But what worked so dramatically for him can work for anyone. Cycling is an effective way to get beneficial exercise because you must move your largest muscles – your legs – and keep most of your anatomy in motion, improving your flexibility.
Getting a bike that fits is essential to get the most out of the exercise. Not only will you avoid injuries that can come with using an improperly adjusted bike but you’ll enjoy it more if it fits you and is easy and fun to ride. Remember, it’s not how hard you work on a bike so much as it is how long you work on it.
If you’re running out of breath, then go to a higher gear. If your legs are giving out, go to a lower gear. Always wear a helmet, even in the driveway or a parking lot. Seniors take forever to recuperate from impact injuries like cracked skulls and broken legs.
Always obey the traffic laws, and stay in the street, not on the sidewalk. A cyclist ideally should ride about where the right-hand tires are on a car, as she or he has just as much right to the road as cars do. If you are too close to the edge them drivers will be tempted to squeeze by and may push you off the road. Of course, if you have room to do it, pulling over to let a car pass is just common courtesy.
The important thing is to do it, and do it regularly. You’ll find that when bad weather hits you can ride your bike indoors with an inexpensive stand that allows it to run in place. If you do it indoors this winter, you’ll be riding straight up the H street hill by spring.