Movement as medicine: cycling can help close the fitness gap at any age

By Becci Curtis and Sir Muir Gray

Last September, Cyclox and Oxford Brookes University hosted a conference on co-creating a cycling environment for people of all ages. In his opening presentation, Sir Muir Gray, the public health specialist, said ‘the elixir of life has already been discovered and cycling is part of it’. He claims that cycling can lower your risk of dementia and frailty, and decrease the need for social care. Great news! But how? Sir Muir went on to explain…

A normal biological process called ‘ageing’ exists, but the problems we correlate with ageing are not necessarily a symptom of ageing itself; they are caused by loss of fitness, disease, incorrect beliefs and pessimistic attitudes around what ageing means for our quality of life.

For people maintaining a high level of activity – think athletes such as Bradley Wiggins – fitness begins to decline around age 40. For most people, however, the turning point can be found around their early 20s: first desk job, first car and – all too often – less time (or no time) for exercise and sport due to the various demands and pressures of life.

Disease is an increasing issue from age 40 onward and is often followed by an accelerated loss of fitness: partly due to the disease itself, but also partly as a result of the belief that the onset of disease means less physical activity should take place. Most diseases associated with age are preventable and maintaining a good level of physical activity is one of the main means of doing that.

The loss of fitness we associate with age largely results from physical inactivity and social isolation, leading to low physical, emotional and cognitive wellbeing. Ageing by itself is not a cause of major problems until we reach our late 90s – so we need a new approach:

  1. The older you are, the more activity you need, focusing on: strength, stamina, suppleness and skill.
  2. Every long-term diagnosed condition indicates the need for a further increase in activity.

‘Activity therapy’ is now being introduced by Moving Medicine, a programme funded by Sport England and Public Health England. Healthcare professionals are being asked to prescribe walking, cycling and volunteering alongside medication. This new policy (‘social prescribing’) needs to be identified and utilised by local cycling groups.

Let’s find ways to help people get back on bikes, despite the fact that encouraging people in a car dominated world can be difficult, and especially when those people have not cycled for 30 years. Let’s also include people who can’t ride a conventional bike. Let’s reach people in their own homes and link them to e-sport gaming software, so cycling doesn’t need to occur in isolation – it’s now easy to develop virtual cycling groups.

The records of veteran sport cyclists may show a decline in peak performance as they age, but for most people, the ‘fitness gap’ between best possible level of ability and actual ability, is a gap that can not only be prevented, but closed at any age.

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