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  • brucegray

    This is an important topic. And I don’t think it is well considered by most, including sports scientists. Consider evolution and more recent human history. The great bulk of mankind have not done moderate to intense aerobic exercise 5 or more hours a week. Rather, they toiled at manual tasks over longer periods. These are lower intensity activity that burns fat primarily, not glycogen and glucose. And generally they worked in a more harmonious mindstate, singing or whistling as they did, pausing as needed. Anyone who has traveled in developing countries with eyes open will know this is true.

    Nor did our ancestors sit sedentarily (in offices) under significant daily stress.

    So much of the psychological, emotional, and musculoskeletal dis-ease of modern man is due purely to how our activity differs from our ancestors.
    Until we wake up and ask what drives the obsession with cardio exercise, we are not going to make much progress understanding mental illness, or obesity.

    And no, I am not advocating we all join a gym, pump iron, and eat Paleo instead. I’m a health professional who has seen too many people using cardio exercise to manage stress, unsuccessfully.

    • OverIt

      I can see where you going here, and I think you have a good point. Many general training/health articles (non cycling), now seem to be converging on the steady workload, with bursts of high intensity. Which would replicate our ancestral way of life. Encouraging fat burning and a balance between a strong body, with good short -> medium burst cardio ability.

      I was a late bloomer physically, but would say I’m at the fittest ‘overall’ I’ve ever been, and I’m now 43. For me it’s a combination of things. Not too much loooooong riding at high intensity, (people should read more about how too much Cortisol from prolonged cardio, can have quite damaging effects especially as we age and start losing muscle). ‘Enough’ weight training to maintain muscle & bone mass and muscle neurological connectivity, (my physiology never allowed me to gain lean mass easily). But I can Squat and dead-lift >1.5 times my body weight. I’d like to see what cyclists could do in the gym? (not a criticism, just a curiosity).

      I think the other topic for mental health is the overly processed and unnatural way we feed our bodies, upsetting the mind. There are many studies now connecting digestive health to mental state. So eating as unprocessed as possible is a big one too.

      Hopefully awareness of the above is enough to counter the negatives of office life, but you’re right, there’s a lot we need to learn from our past here and from people not caught up in capitalist western society and not stressed out like we are.

      • brucegray

        I used to do a lot of 150+km rides, but have given them away, these days doing mainly 1-1.5 hour moderate to high intensity stuff a few times a week. Longer rides would flatten me for a day or two, I’d feel more fragile, would avoid ‘people-y’ places like shopping centers and cbd’s, couldn’t cope with confrontation at work as much, in my view, very much fear/cortisol based bias. Personally, I want to prioritize pursuing a lifestyle that keeps me feeling mentally and emotionally strong. I think that’s the common denominator to controlling appetite, hence bodyweight. In my professional experience with weight management, apart from base nutritional ignorance, poorly managed stress is the common denominator that steers people away from a healthy diet.

    • Sean parker

      There’s also a lot of emerging evidence on the benefits of weight training on mental health (esp. depression), mostly in aging populations.

  • Transalpen

    Top article Shane. I remember reading something a few years ago about how excessive training could bring on depression but hadn’t read anything further until now. Really interesting read.

    • Shane Stokes

      Thanks for that, it’s been an interesting area to look into – I guess it’s all about keeping things in balance.

      • I enjoyed this article Shane. A useful follow-on with direct application for all of us.

  • James Powers
  • Wazza

    Thanks, this really resonates with me; this year I managed to get myself in a position to train for a 240km/4000m of climbing event as a way of ‘celebrating’ a significant improvement in my mental health, I was overweight by about 9kgs, unfit and unmotivated just struggling to deal with life. What I found when I progressively increased the training load, the fatigue was overwhelming and was a major factor in increasing anxiety. I persevered through it but it seemed the thing I was trying to do to get back on track took me further from my goal of mental wellbeing. For the record I completed my event and have now backed off the training load but I have now learnt a lesson that if I want to set a tough goal; I not only need to consider can I physically do it but do I have the mental health capability to do it; I naively thought the only issue I would have would be maintaining motivation during winter training and that the fact I was exercising would only have a positive effect on my wellbeing.

    • Superpilot

      I too find this. I’m busy like everyone, family, work etc. I don’t have the time to train like the guys I used to ride with a year ago. I found not keeping up with them really started to stress me out. I also found my perceived level of fitness really began to become a source of anxiety, especially if I missed a ride and was terrified at a (miniscule) loss of fitness. I also found as my fitness increased and training load increased nearer to my one target even for the year, that I began to hate getting up and hitting the road. I wasn’t coping because I was trying to control the uncontrollable, and the recovery needed meant I was constantly exhausted, but I was anxious to be missing any ride as it meant a harder ride next time out. I did my target event in (anxiety increasing) atrocious weather, but got a 15 minute PB. I learnt a lot, that it was the journey, not the destination that mattered, and am now really looking forward to exploring on the steel bike with DT shifters, and not stressing about keeping up, just enjoying turning the pedals.

    • Dave Whiteway

      I think the main point there was that steadily building a base and goal setting along that increase will allow most riders to complete just about anything. But don’t bite off more than you can chew straight away. Build a training program based on an achieveable level of improvement over a longer period of time, perhaps give yourself a 2 year window to get up to a 240km event, aim for a century the first year and end it on the big one. Then reorientate your goals for the next achievement/adventure.

      This seems like a more sustainable way of maintaining mental and physical health over a lifetime.

  • Superpilot

    Great article Shane! This and the Froome stuff is really good. I just plug away at the bike, but I do notice there does seem to be a line of marginal or negative gains, depending upon what the rest of your life is like. Too much riding, and the tiredness and lack of time in the rest of life adds to stress overall, making things more glum. I don’t know if there has been much research done, but I am interested in the longevity of people that do endurance exercise. I know a few former top level riders, and a large number of their friends have passed away too soon from heart attacks and the like. This isn’t the same as heart attacks while undertaking exercise (the research says that while headline inducing, heart attacks at marathons and endurance races are on par with those incurred in the general population). More, is there some effect from long term endurance exercise with an anaerobic component, either caused by the stress on the heart, or the resulting stress hormones or other physiological changes in the body from the adaptation response, or also possibly from the type of glycogen/carbohydrate centric reduction/replenishment placing certain stresses on the body. Perhaps, in the amateur rider, there is no overall difference with the general population and/or the moderate exerciser sub-set, so the anecdotal evidence is the subset of advanced/professional level athletes? Finally @brucegray, I have yet to find anything that suggests cycling causes advanced wear on joints, as there is no impact. Even knee issues tend to be around the misalignment or pre-existing conditions, and can be alleviated/avoided and even rehabilitated by simply riding in easier gears. All I can find is anecdotal evidence that cycling is bad for your core and your posture, favouring tight muscles.

  • Tommy Ratna

    “…an optimal zone which, for many, will work out to between three and eight hours a week” – more like per day.

  • Orrsome153

    So in short, if you work full time, have a family or partner and are involved in some type of sporting pursuit then you should not over do it! If that describes you then 10-12 hours a week is all you are probably doing anyway. I am sure there are always exceptions such as training for that one big sportive or a week cycling in the mountains (Dolomites preferably). In my experience after completing a significant personal challenge I usually have a period of reduced training. Many of my friends run marathons and take a significant break after the marathon one because the body needs a break and two because the motivation declines. I assume the lack of motivation is as a direct correlation to the conditions listed above (the serotonin needs to be replenished). I maybe presumptuous when I suggest there are not too many amateur cyclist who are pumping out 20 hour plus weeks every week of the year most go hard for a while achieve a goal and then ease off. That being said most cyclist would be thrilled to do 10 hours every week. It just does not happen on a regular basis re other commitments, injury or dare I say it lack of motivation. I guess the drop in motivation can in some cases be a result of depression or other mental health issues. I found the article to be interesting and justified my lack of training, I knew I was onto a good thing. Anyway great article and a timely reminder about balancing our love of cycling with our need for other interests.

    • Peka Bali

      Not so sure about drop in motivation in relation to chemical processes: I do about a dozen races a year and remain motivates until the very last one, after which I don’t look at the bike for weeks :D. Setting a season goal is what keeps me going.
      True enough though, towards the last race I do feel the length of the season pressing on me.

      10 hours per week is not much though: 1,5 hour daily with one restday should be routine for competitive riders.

  • ceedee

    Really interesting article. Sheds light on my past exercise history.

  • Shiffon

    This is a fantastic piece, that I think will resonate with a lot of people, myself very much included. As someone who has had some serious mental health issues at various points in life, exercise, including cycling, has been both a blessing and a curse. My mental health problems manifested itself in the form of an eating disorder, which has swung from the mantra of “exercise to eat” and “eat to exercise” a various points, with the effects being somewhat mixed. It is sometimes great to be comfortable enough with life generally that “eat to exercise” rules to roost, and the joy that is found in exercise then spurs on further happiness. However, when the tables turn and a depressive episode occurs, then exercise is a demon in itself. The highs that you gain from exercise, make the subsequent lows worse, which, in my case, is only compounded by the damage that disordered eating has on mental, emotional and physical health. Allowing yourself only x-amount of food after y-amount of kilometres is not having a good relationship with cycling! And if no exercise, then no food at all… Scary stuff!
    I think there are probably many cyclists out there who would do this, maybe not to the extreme of some, but the obsession with weight in cycling (and long-distance running too, my other love!) is not always conducive to good mental health. And as others have said, knowing yourself is key to working out if your exercise is a help or hindrance to your overall health.

  • Gerry

    This sort of article is a big part of the reason I read CyclingTips over any other cycling site. Cycling is about more than just those at the very top, and (most) cyclists are about more than just their cycling. CT seems to be the only site recognises and embraces that fact.
    Thanks guys! Keep up the good work.

    • Shane Stokes

      Thanks Gerry (and all the others who enjoyed this) – great feedback, we all appreciate it. Glad to see that people like these pieces, they are interesting to work on too.

  • Andy B

    this article forgot to mention the effect of headwinds

    • Shane Stokes

      metaphorical headwinds?

  • C.Field

    This is a very good article! I am consistently impressed with the quality of content on this website. It’s becoming one of my favorites.
    I recall a study that looked at the relationship between exercise habits and mortality of Harvard graduates. More exercise was better until ~3500 kCals/week at which point it became detrimental- as I recall, the high exercise group’s average age at death was on par with the sedentary group’s. This number (3500 KCal) is definitely in the same ballpark as the 7.5 hour number in the journal for preventative medicine study that you mention in this article. I also recall reading a similar study about the relationship of exercise and evidence of free radical damage.

    • Peka Bali

      I very strongly doubt that a 3500 Kcal burn per WEEK is a high exercise “risk”, considering that would be less than 6 hours or cycling at moderate speeds for your average cyclist, lass than an hour a day.. Some even say that less than an hour of exercise doesn’t even start up your metabolism properly. Also, calorie burn differs substantially with body weight, so comparing a 50 kg person with an 80 kg person results in huge differences. The definition of “exercise” is crucial here as well: probably extended efforts in the higher heartbeat ranges are meant by the study, which differs for everyone. Otherwise, if we assume that humanity has never been this lazy as now with our sitting jobs, basically half of the day humans were doing exercise: working the fields or herding animals or hunting them, it’s serious exercise if you do it well ;).
      All in all I would treat such studies with caution.


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