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Cycling Over 50: ‘The benefits just don’t outweigh the potential consequences’

by Ted Johnson

Every now and then I must relearn the lesson that doctors aren’t necessarily scientists.

This is from The Huffington Post: “Cycling Injuries: A New Epidemic?

I have treated hundreds of [facial] injuries. Facial fractures may result from any significant blunt trauma — motor vehicle accidents, physical altercations, sports injuries.

In the last year I have witnessed a new injury demographic, amounting to almost an epidemic: bicyclists over the age of 50.

The Huffington Post: “Cycling Injuries: A New Epidemic?”Shut up.

Need I continue?

Alright, but I’m annoyed.

The author of that piece is Michael Yaremchuk, M.D., Chief of Craniofacial Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital.

Apparently, if you get your face smashed in Massachusetts, he’s the guy you want to see. I’m sure he’s an awesome surgeon.

But imagine that you’re a doctor working in a hospital ER, and you began to notice that you are seeing an increase people who have choked on apples.

Apples are one of the five healthiest foods in the world.  But, you’ve noticed, lately a whole bunch of apple eaters seem to be taking huge bites and not taking the time to chew 20 times. Instead they precipitously swallow that oversize apple bite, and start suffocating. Next thing they know, they’re on a gurney looking at you, the ER doctor.

Would you call that an epidemic? Would you think that apples are something to worry about? Would you sound the alarm against ever eating apples again? You might if you were Michael Yaremchuk, M.D.

Or would you say, Wow! People are eating a lot of apples. That’s really good news! Those older folks with no teeth might want to think about sugar-free applesauce, but all in all, Go apple eaters!

My daily observation tells me that bicyclists (young and old) while slowing motor vehicle traffic on Commonwealth Avenue rarely stop for red lights or stop signs, frequently ride outside of the bike lane and often ride on the wrong side of the street.

Ah! So now we know what this is about. This is taking anecdotal data–”my daily observation”–on a novel phenomenon, a cultural change, and drawing a self-serving recommendation: Get all of those cyclists off of my roads!

How many craniofacial injuries from car accidents does Yaremchuk see per year?

(Related question: In this recent spate of injuries reported by the doctor, how many are the result of cyclists’ encounters with cars?)

I’d venture that every increase in cycling injuries is more than offset by a decrease in auto injuries, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease, and diabetes.

But who’s contrasting those health problems to the data on the benefits of cycling? Those health problems are normal.

“While being dangerous,” he says, matter-of-factly…

…city bike riding also has a limited exercise benefit. If you weigh 150 lbs and walk two miles to work at four miles/hour you will burn 150 calories. If you ride your bike that distance at 10 miles/hour, you will only burn 75 calories.

If you are over 50, think twice before you get on a bicycle, especially if you plan on riding in busy traffic. The benefits just don’t outweigh the potential consequences.

On ChicagoNow, Brent Cohrs has a good response to Yaremchuk’s column:

I ride with a lot of people over 50. They may not be able to beat a 10 year-old at Wii, but they can maneuver around broken glass, dodge a distracted pedestrian, and avoid an opening car door in a nanosecond. They also have healthier hearts, stronger legs, and greater flexibility than the majority of couch potatoes their age. Bicycling is not the same as using a piece of cardio equipment in the gym. Cycling sharpens the mind while it works the body. Why would a doctor want to discourage this?

Why indeed.

 
Burley nomad 229

34 Responses to “Cycling Over 50: ‘The benefits just don’t outweigh the potential consequences’”

  1. PolishRifle says:

    I use to ride up and down the coast in San Diego. Did a few triathlons; and, gradually, got away from swimming, bicycling and running as my knees started to complain. Okay, I got lazy.

    Now, at 58, I’m starting to swim again; and, after a bunch of research, and a deal on last year’s model, I bought a Schwinn World 21 Commuter Bike from a LBS.

    I can’t tell you how much fun it is to be back in the game. I won’t say that I can dance on the bike. like I use to, but I know I still have the moves.

    What helped, a lot, was riding on a stationery bike for some years, so my legs weren’t completely out of shape.

    There are ways to avoid heavily trafficked streets; and, if you can’t, have a mirror, a helmet, and by hyper vigilant.

    Happy Trails!

  2. Tyler says:

    I’m 58 and bike every day in NYC. I can say it is probably saving my life. From a 38 waist to a 32. Doc made me take the resting heartrate test again because he didn’t believe it. I’ve can’t wait to explore neighborhoods and have rescued a 12 year old who got her sweater caught to lending a patch kit to a couple guys from Italy who were biking from Boston to SF. I was cut off by a driver crashed got cut up and got back on. You learn. NYC is installing more bike lanes every day. Makes me happy – what can I say.

  3. Scott H. says:

    I’m 47 (almost there), and in response to Dr. Yaremchuk’s assessment, I’d say if you’re going 10mph on city streets (like the West L.A. streets I ride every day), you SHOULD think twice about being on a bike.

    It’s just fast enough to be a hazard, and too slow to respond to hazards.

    The demographic still most at risk is the iPod-wearing 20-something male riding without a helmet. And that seems to be an epidemic.

  4. Gene @ BU says:

    Robert Hurst in “The Art of Urban Cycling” says that,” … a devoted urban cyclist with some years of experience in heavy traffic can expect a good, solid wipeout about once per year, and a more serious injury-causing wreck about every three to five years. … [with rider experience] … The total number of wrecks per mile will decrease, while the percentage of the total wrecks that involve collisions with a car or truck will increase. The accidents become much less frequent, but more serious, over time.”

    Perhaps Dr. Yaremchuk is seeing this trend in action. As the population of older, more experienced rides grows, they are sustaining more serious injuries.

  5. I am a 54 year old male family physician who started back cycling again about 4 years ago. I cycle to my office (about 4 miles one way on mostly rural highways) 3-4 days every other week. The off weeks I have to drive about 27 miles one way to the hospital where I see patients. I also tour on the country roads and trails in my area. I’ve learned a lot about safe riding from some of the commuting websites I frequently read; including “Commute by Bike”. Being on a bike places one in a more vulnerable position in traffic. Being careful, riding defensively, and using one’s head to avoid getting it injured goes a long way. For a number of reasons, we are seeing more people of all ages riding bikes. Some do not seem to aspire to the goal of being safe, defensive riders. As the numbers go up so will the incidence of accidents; unless riders really make the effort to be careful. The continuing development of cycling infrastructure will help, too. Dr. Yaremchuk’s observations must be tempered by the knowledge that there are probably more people over 50 cycling all over the country than in years past. Simple statistics support the fact there will be more accidents/injuries. One way to avoid becoming a “statistic” is to be careful and learn to cycle safely. This article just tells me there is still a lot of education needed.

  6. BluesCat says:

    Well, little Doc Yaremchuk’s main emphasis is cosmetic surgery, which means he is much more interested in APPEARANCES than in REALITY.

    So, should we REALLY be surprised when he starts touting this nonsense that it “appears to him” that, for those over 50, bicycles aren’t worth “the potential consequences”?

    This 61-year-old, grizzled and sun baked Arizonan would like to take the uppity little Boston pup out behind the woodshed and show ‘im how we discipline condescending little wisenheimers!

  7. I’m just as annoyed by that article as the other commenters.
    I’m 65 and gave up my car for a bicycle 5 years ago and have been commuting to work and everywhere else every day no matter what the weather is.
    Not a single injury, I’ve lost weight, I’m MUCH healthier, much happier, and consider that doctor an idiot.

  8. Hivemind says:

    It seems that this doctor is an anti-cyclist bigot who wants them out of the way of his car and is willing to put his reputation on the line to further his agenda.

    I’m not really sure I want someone who can’t properly analyse risk versus reward operating on me. I’m even less likely to trust someone who can do this but deliberately distorts results to further their agenda.

    I have a problem with his maths. He claims that someone walking 4mph (a fast walk) burns more calories than someone cycling at 10mph (pretty slowly). What he should be concerned with is that the walker takes 30 minutes to get to work and burns 150kCal. The slow cyclist burns half the calories but still manages to get to work in less than half the time.

    In actuality the choice is not generally between walking and cycling. It’s between cycling and driving and I don’t see any analysis of how many calories the motorist spends sitting on their ass all the way in to work.

  9. PolarBear says:

    While it may burn more calories to walk vs. ride, it also burns more time – enough to be a deterrent for many people. The two miles he gives as an example isn’t all that far (although I’d argue that 4mph is a tad on the fast side for most people – 3mph would be better – and 10mph on the bike is definitely on the slow end), but there’s already a substantial time savings to be had by riding. This could make the difference between someone getting there under their own power AT ALL vs. giving up and taking the car, which burns even fewer calories!

  10. eveostay says:

    “If you weigh 150 lbs and walk two miles to work at four miles/hour you will burn 150 calories. If you ride your bike that distance at 10 miles/hour, you will only burn 75 calories.”

    Well, duh. And it also takes 2.5 times longer.

    That’s the beauty of bike commuting: you get a workout while performing a useful function, using time you wouldn’t have available otherwise.

  11. Joe R. says:

    He bases his math on the silly assumption that the cyclist will be going at a very leisurely pace (c’mon, I need to ride my brake to hold my speed to only 10 mph, not to mention riding that slow is as much fun as watching paint dry), while the walker will be going at a fairly brisk 4 mph. Apples to oranges. A 4 mph walker will probably ride at least 15 mph, possibly even 20+ mph. I’m 48. I usually ride in the 18 to 23 mph area. Even on 5% upgrades I’m well over 10 mph (usually I do those at ~14 mph in a 42-26 gear). According to the Schwinn 240 exercise bike I use on days when the weather keeps me from riding, I’m burning about 800 calories per hour. My rides on the road get my heart rate up into the same zone, and usually last at least an hour. A nice 25 mile ride out of the city probably burns off a good 1200 calories.

    As for falls/accidents, last one was in 1996. I haven’t fallen off the bike for any reason at all, period, in 15 years. Most of my prior falls were potholes, and my only injuries were road rash on my legs/arms. I don’t plan to give up cycling when I turn 50 on this doctor’s advice. If anything, I want to still be on the road at 100, and I suspect cycling regularly will give me a better chance of living to that ripe old age.

  12. Ted Johnson says:

    I can’t seem to leave a comment on the Huffington Post article. When I try, I got into a dead end where I need to register on the site, and then it won’t let me register.

    If anyone can get past that unintentional firewall, I’d like to have the URL to this added in the comments so that the good doctor can read these comments if he so chooses.

  13. Kevin Love says:

    Real medical doctors, like Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, report things such as, for example, that car pollution in Toronto kills 440 people per year and injures 1,700 so seriously that they have to be hospitalised.

  14. Dick T says:

    I’m 66, commute 25 miles a day, five days a week, year round, and I’ve been commuting 20 years. I don’t think we can reject what the doctor says because we don’t like it. That’s like rejecting climate change science because we don’t like the future it predicts. Advances in science begin with an observation, often about something unusual. (Unfortunately he undermines his credibility by saying the benefits don’t outweigh the risks. He has no evidence for that.) The doctor provides us with a fragment of evidence, and that can be valuable for our well-being.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Caveat: I’m not an epidemiologist, I just play one on the Web.

      I’m not rejecting what the doctor says because I don’t like it. I’m rejecting it because it’s nonsense. I accept that he saw three craniofacial injuries in one week. What I reject is his conclusion that this is an increase in the rate of these injuries — which, if true, would qualify this as an epidemic. What he has observed (in my opinion) is an anomalous spike in these cases combined perhaps with an increase in the incidences. That does not qualify as an epidemic.

      Age 66 and 25 miles a day? I’m humbled.

  15. BluesCat says:

    Ted: Did it, done it, comment is under review over there so we’ll see.

  16. Gene @ BU says:

    Steve, you speak words of wisdom. Cycling education is essential as the number of riders continues to increase.

    I would like to see something like the Canadian Cycling Association’s CAN-BIKE program here in the U.S. This is a safety program based on a nationally standardized set of courses and the instructors are all certified.

    I think this is a great idea that promotes safety and expands the general interest in cycling.

  17. EDan says:

    I’m 65, have ridden for more than 40 years all over this country. 1500 miles last year and heading for 2000 plus this year. I live to ride and ride to live. (literaly) My daily rides of 10 to 30 miles are the joy of my life. I certainly would not consider ending this activity based on the ‘observations’ of some quack in a glass cage. My family and friends know that if I die on my bike, I will have died happy. It has been a good way to live, and to para-phrase my Lakota brothers: IT IS A GOOD WAY TO DIE!

  18. That Michael has been a naughty, naughty Doctor hasn’t he?

    As you quite correctly point out, a sample of 3 isn’t valid, even if the incidence of observed ‘events’ is over 1 week. (I’m an RN, I studied stats at uni, I work in a research centre affiliated with the University of Melbourne.)

    Nothing he says in that piece is scientific, or backed up with independent research.

    Of course “bike accidents on busy streets are predictable”!, when there are more cars than bikes – well duh!

    And I love this one: “Presumed superior intelligence, good judgment and decision making are not protective from bike accidents and injury.”
    Correctomundo! Observe recent TDF, cycling athletes at the peak of their physical and mental powers, and they still have accidents!

    What are they thinking, riding a bike at all? Must scare the s**t of young Michael watching it from his leather lounge chair!

    Oh, yes, I’m 51, I’ve ridden a bike for 40 years, I now ride an Xtracycle to carry the kids around. I’ve had 2 accidents in 40 years.

    ‘Nuff said.

    cheers

    Richard

  19. Chrehn says:

    ” I just had to laugh, having read the…” comments of this doctor who may be educated beyond his intelligence. Dude! cycling over 50?!? How about cycling over 60? I may not be half the stallion that I once thought I was, but, I can still get the job done. It just takes longer. I would rather take a bad bounce on a bicycle, than, have someone find me dead in a recliner chair, with a bowl of cold Mission Macaroni on my chest and Happy Days playing on the television.

  20. Tom Bowden says:

    BluesCat – I’ll be right there with you! What a condescending bag of medical flatulence. Since when do craniofacial surgeons know squat about epidemiology and cardiovascular fitness? I bet he can’t even spell bycicle. However, it’s well known that many surgeons suffer from the “God Complex.” In fact, it’s an epidemic, because I ran into one last week! I can picture this guy in a tv commercial recommending that all of us quinqagenarians should place our orders for free Hoveround chairs while Medicare still pays the full cost. http://www.hoveround.com My – they do look comfy! He probably owns stock in Lifealert too. “All senior citizens should have Lifealert!” Constance and I always crack up when we see that commercial because the lady reminds me so much of a certain dearly loved family member who is not shy about sharing her opinion. I’m going to beddy-bye now – thank heavens we installed the Ameriglide electric stair chair, or I might not make it up there before the denture cream dries out and I lose my teeth again – it’s so hard to bend over and pick them up off the floor – at least it was until I got my teeter totter inversion table! 50 is the new 30 – that’s what I say.

  21. Scott says:

    I used to shower every day. I liked feeling clean and not smelling nasty.

    On the advice of my doctor, however, I’ve recently stopped. Did you know that dozens of people slip and fall in the shower every year? Many of them suffer terrible injuries.

    I really can’t justify such dangerous behavior so now I just strip down in the back yard and have my wife blast me with the garden hose. (While wearing proper protective equipment over all orifices, of course.) I’m not sure what I’ll do once winter comes, though.

    Everyone, please think twice about showering. The benefits just don’t outweigh the potential consequences.

  22. Mikey Bikey says:

    I am 52 yrs. old and commute 2 work almost everyday 4 the past 15 months. Just got a call from the doctor this morning. All my blood work check out good. I am a healthy old man. I am 5′ 8″ and weigh 158 lbs, it’s about 6-8 lbs. more than when I was in high school (34 yrs. ago).

  23. Ted, I took care of that for you. There should be a link back to here (pending approval of Huffpost’s moderators). Huffpost requires a myriad of registrations – something they didn’t do when I started posting in ’08.

    Thanks for commenting on my Chicago Now blog.

    It’s unfortunate we all have to defend bicycling against a doctor with a soapbox…

  24. Julian says:

    Lol, I love being told that I’d better stick to doing “old” activities for my own safety and well-being. 52 years old here, and I ride trials bikes, fixed geared bikes and mountain bikes on nasty technical trails. I also commute year round. Since when does age have anything to do with wiping out? It’s got more to do with the amount of riding experience and level of bike handling skill that a person has. Thank God I don’t eat apples!

  25. Richard says:

    Maybe Dr Y should team up with a local cardiologist to see if the increase in bicycle injuries corresponds with a decrease in heart attacks & strokes…

  26. Certainly an effective bit of trolling! He ought to be able to get a few talk shows out of it.

    Disregarding the data, logically he has a point. The physically “healthiest” way to live would be to eat a restricted but healthy diet, to live in an underground cave with measured exposure to germs and UV light, and to exercise in limited ways on ultra-safe equipment. (Physical, not psychological).

    Everything else, including walking, is a risk.

    Some physical activities are riskier. Mountain climbing notoriously so. Others are safer – swimming in a monitored pool. Bicycling is somewhere in between. Traffic segregation and (to some extent) helmets make it safer. Snow/ice cycling with cards is much riskier than summer cycling on a path.

    It’s all calculated risk. Having good local risk data would help us make better judgments, but in the end risk taking is personal.

  27. Jay S says:

    http://www.dryaremchuk.com/english/index.htm

    I don’t think this guy would be riding a bike anyways… who cares what this idiot says

  28. checko ayala says:

    life long off and on and on again at 56, been riding almost everyday and felling better, the mental game is where is at, I’ve hitting the hills and enjoying the climbing more than ever, just did a 10 mile 2400ft. at my own pace and felt very accomplished, needless to say it’s making a whole of a difference health wise, prefer the trails instead of the streets for safety reasons, I’ve always done that.

  29. Alan Huntley says:

    I LOVE that response! So succinct. I’m an an over 50 cyclist and started when I was 15. Over the years you develop riding skills that are hard to teach. Beginning riding in your 50′s, if you have never touched a bike before can be daunting, particurly in a city, and it is up to the more experienced riders to guide the newbies and try and pass on some of the experience gained; encourage people you meet to join clubs and ride with others; spread the word and you will have passed on the gift of fitness and health to a new generation. Ignore the naysayes and live a litte!

  30. Mister Ed says:

    “If you are over 50, think twice before you get on a bicycle,
    especially if you plan on riding in busy traffic. The benefits just
    don’t outweigh the potential consequences.”

    Okay . . . let me think twice . . . done!

    At age 66 I cycled to Cape Hatteras from the Home of the Gators; 14
    days, 1000 miles. At 67 I average 500 miles a month. I have no car and
    manage quite well without. The VA says I have “textbook blood.” Nothing
    is as liberating for us old folk than the freedom offered by a bike.

    And as Colin Fletcher said in _The Complete Walker_, many years ago:

    “Never cross an
    intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are
    clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that
    seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In
    your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may
    discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long
    time.”

    Thanks for the warning, Doc, but my anecdotal evidence says I should
    take my chances and love every damn minute of it.

  31. Janice in GA says:

    I’m 61, been riding again (for transportation) a good bit for the last 3 years. For some of us, 10 mph isn’t that boring when it’s the fastest you can go. I’d be a bit faster if there weren’t so many hills in my area! But I’ve done 3400 miles so far this year at the blazing average speed of 9.8 mph, LOL.

    I’m slow, but I don’t stop.

  32. Henry says:

    I’m 66 and have been cycling for about 10 yrs. I was 243 now 220. Ok. Not a rail but no longer on Atenolol for irregular heart beat. No Allopurinol for gout. Blood pressure is 108/66. Heart rate at 56. Cholesterol 140. Yama-whatever is an idiot. Do I ride with my hair on fire at 30 moh? No. I just did a 50 miler in 4 hrs last weekend. I did 62 in rain, cold ,high winds in April in Utah. I ride about 75-100 mi per week consistently. My best friend and I are getting ready for 2 more 62 mi and a century in Nov. will I give it up? No. I’ve got the cyclists tan. My badge of honor. No. I’m not giving up cycling. The older I get the better I am.

  33. Barbara Pytlewski says:

    I soooooo agree! I am a 67 year YOUNG 4 time cancer survivor lady who rides 14 miles every day in the beautiful Wood River Valley, Idaho. I will only get off my bike when I leave this world. I have survived the “unsurvivable” and am told I still look like I’m under 60!!!

    Kudos to cycling over 50!!!!

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