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New study seeks to discover if excessive recreational cycling leads to heart issues

Research from Australia is claimed to be first in the world focusing on non-elite riders cycling for fitness

A study in Australia aims to discover whether excessive cycling among recreational riders leads to heart issues, in what is claimed to be the first such research in the world.

While numerous studies have established the benefits of cycling for heart health, Dr Daniel Wundersitz, a research fellow at La Trobe University in Bendigo, Victoria, decided to investigate whether too much cycling causes heart problems after a “worrying trend” was identified among the number of cyclists presenting to Bendigo Health with heart arrhythmias.

He told ABC that while studies have been conducted focusing on elite athletes, nothing has been done relating to recreational riders.

“[The] worst-case scenario would be that a certain amount of endurance exercise would lead to changes in the way the heart functions,” he said.

“We don't know enough in this area, there's a lot of research in the elite athletes but what about the recreational people,” he continued.

He is seeking not to deter people from getting in the saddle, but to ascertain whether excessive exercise can cause heart problems, as well as how cycling compares to other types of aerobic exercise in terms of its effect on the heart.

The 60 participants are first tested to measure their fitness, then undergo a health scan and are given a monitoring device to take home for five days so their heart’s regular electrical activity can be measured.

They then undergo six hours of moderate-to-high-intensity endurance exercise on a static bike, wearing a facemask attached to a metabolic cart to measure how they breathe.

“The face mask is looking at their oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production,” Dr Wundersitz explained.

“We look at those gases to determine their VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen they can consume.”

Finally, four or five days after the bike ride, subjects are tested so that the effect of the exercise on their heart can be measured.

Previous studies we have reported on here on road.cc tend to focus on the benefits to heart and lung health of riding a bike for everyday tasks, including commuting – including one from researchers at Imperial College, London and the University of Cambridge, suggests that more people cycling or walking to work could reduce deaths from conditions including heart disease.

The study analysed data relating to 300,000 commuters in England and Wales from 1991 to 2016 with its findings including that, compared to those who drove to work, during the study period, people who cycled had:

a 20 per cent reduced rate of early death

a 24 per cent reduced rate of death from cardiovascular disease (which includes heart attack and stroke)

a 16 per cent reduced rate of death from cancer, and

an 11 per cent reduced rate of a cancer diagnosis.

> More cycling and walking to work post-lockdown can reduce early deaths from cancer and heart disease, major new study finds

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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35 comments

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wycombewheeler | 2 years ago
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The view is that endurance cyclists are more likely to have these heart conditions than the general public?

Are these conditions more likely to be deteted by people who routinely use heart rate monitors than those who don't?

Do they have an accurate idea of how many endurance cyclists there are? Or are they comining out with a high incidence rate based on underestimation of number of people doing lots of cycling?

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Philh68 | 2 years ago
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Here's a link to the original story from last year in the local Bendigo news:

https://www.bendigoadvertiser.com.au/story/6876521/how-bendigo-cyclists-...

a ten fold increase in arrhythmias among one group of riders, after a 24 day charity ride would spark a bit of concern. I can see why they wish to do the research.

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kingleo | 2 years ago
4 likes

I'm nearly 80, done thousands of running and cycle races over the past 63 years, plus commuting to and from work on my bike, plus several tough cycling holidays a year on my bike. Recently I had a complete heart check-up by a cardiologist - he said my heart was in first-class condition.

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grOg replied to kingleo | 2 years ago
1 like

Well, that resolves it then.. 

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ribena | 2 years ago
6 likes

It's probably due to the stress of cycling with Australian motorists

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Philh68 replied to ribena | 2 years ago
1 like

No, us Aussies are battle hardened, we don't stress about that yes

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Runningwolf | 2 years ago
6 likes

I believe that any study into heart conditions would be benificial to all.  We only hear about professional athletes who suffer heart attacks or cardiac arrest in the media, for obvious reasons.  Heart problems can affect anyone.  I survived a heart attack a few years ago, even though I have been cycling for over 50 plus years.  I even used to race when I was a young man.  As for cycling now, I cycle daily as its my main mode of transport, and I love cycling, but I do monitor my heart and know my limits.  So any research on heart conditions I would welcome the opportunity to be able to read the results of the study.

One Heart, love it.

 

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grOg replied to Runningwolf | 2 years ago
1 like

Heart attacks due to heart disease have nothing to do with cardiac arrest brought on by long-term excessive exercising and with young people that have a genetic heart defect that predisposes them to exercise induced cardiac arrest.

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NickJP | 2 years ago
1 like

Heart problems in lifelong endurance athletes were definitely a thing long before Covid. In our local veterans cycling club, I can think of three riders who have collapsed and died while training/racing due to undiagnosed heart problems. And there have been at least another half dozen others who've needed treatment for tachycardia, atrial fibrilliation, ventricular fibrillation, irregular heartbeat, etc.

Also: https://www.velonews.com/cycling-to-extremes-heart-health-and-endurance-....

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Jenova20 replied to NickJP | 2 years ago
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"11 per cent reduced rate of a cancer diagnosis."

That's a strange one, because it's based on symptoms isn't it? A person who never goes to hospital, or never felt anything wrong would have a 100 percent reduced rate of cancer diagnosis for the same reason...right?

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Secret_squirrel replied to Jenova20 | 2 years ago
3 likes

No.  You're thinking about it the wrong way round.  The silent phrase in that statement is "compared to the norm".  ie cylcists are less likely to be diagnosed with the Big C at some point in their lives than everybody else.

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Jenova20 replied to Secret_squirrel | 2 years ago
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Secret_squirrel wrote:

No.  You're thinking about it the wrong way round.  The silent phrase in that statement is "compared to the norm".  ie cylcists are less likely to be diagnosed with the Big C at some point in their lives than everybody else.

Thanks for the clarification.

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Dhill replied to NickJP | 2 years ago
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NickJP wrote:

Heart problems in lifelong endurance athletes were definitely a thing long before Covid. In our local veterans cycling club, I can think of three riders who have collapsed and died while training/racing due to undiagnosed heart problems. And there have been at least another half dozen others who've needed treatment for tachycardia, atrial fibrilliation, ventricular fibrillation, irregular heartbeat, etc.

Also: https://www.velonews.com/cycling-to-extremes-heart-health-and-endurance-....

Beryl Burton, Britain’s best ever cyclist sadly past away from a cardiac event. She was only 57 or 58 I think. 

I was lucky Pace Maker at 48, cycled most my life; raced, TT’s and touring. You never know what is round the corner. 

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Simon E replied to Dhill | 2 years ago
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Dhill wrote:

Beryl Burton, Britain’s best ever cyclist sadly past away from a cardiac event. She was only 57 or 58 I think.

BB had heart arrhythmia, which IIRC was a result of contracting rheumatic fever as a child.

In many cases we really don't know whether the activity causes or exacerbates a pre-existing condition or not. I suspect that the picture may only become clearer with the data from studying a very large number of people.

Edit: I remembered an interesting article regarding a correlation between cancer and fitness by Alex Hutchinson, whose 'Sweat Science' articles are always worth reading.

https://www.outsideonline.com/2396717/fitness-levels-cancer-risk-correla...

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Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
2 likes

What's the "worrying trend" of Bendigo cyclists presenting with heart arrhythmia? Numbers? Without that information it's hard to know if this is a cause for concern or even if it's worth researching. Over what timeframe has this trend appeared? Because heart arrhythmia is a recognised complication of Covid, so if it's only over the last eighteen months or so...

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andystow replied to Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
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It's been a concern way before COVID. This is the kind of thing that makes it so worrying:

https://www.bicycling.com/news/a20048226/charlie-craig-cyclocross-death-...

Or for the older among us, Jim Fixx, then this guy:

https://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/ultra-marathon-runner-mica...

The last thing I read said if you're doing less than ~10 hours a week of it, it's almost certainly on the balance good for you. I do right around ten. Pros do a lot more.

 

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Rich_cb replied to andystow | 2 years ago
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Philh68 replied to Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
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Infection rate from Covid is very, very low in Australia because as soon as there's any sign of outbreak measures are taken, including lockdowns. It's unlikely to be much of a factor. The "outbreak" that has prompted lockdown in Sydney is around 20 new infections a day.

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Rendel Harris replied to Philh68 | 2 years ago
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Fair point.

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eburtthebike | 2 years ago
11 likes

Only in Australia, where it is official policy to hate cyclists, and cycling, and to try to portray it as somehow bad for you, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, could this research happen.

What next?  Research on how lying on a sofa all day and driving everywhere makes you healthy?

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Philh68 replied to eburtthebike | 2 years ago
4 likes

Unwarranted cynicism. The more we know about arrhythmia the better the treatments will get. There's numerous possible causes so being able to identify or eliminate possible causes is useful.

For example, tilt tests are done because body position may influence the probability of arrhythmia. It could well be that a riding position to maximise aero efficiency could have an unwelcome effect, but we won't know unless we study it. Other factors could be electrolyte imbalance and stress, which if identified could lead riders to adjust and mitigate the risk.

Besides, if it was really about hating cyclists, then no research would be done at all - just let them eliminate themselves.

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eburtthebike replied to Philh68 | 2 years ago
2 likes
Philh68 wrote:

Unwarranted cynicism.

You're probably right, and my cynicism after forty years of trying to promote cycling and mostly being ignored or dismissed with a wave of the hand, and seeing all the money disastrously going into building more roads might be the explanation.  I need more good news, fast.

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Philh68 replied to eburtthebike | 2 years ago
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I know what you mean, but having recreational cyclists suffer from unexplained cardiac issues will hardly encourage people out of their cars and onto a bicycle, will it. We have to multitask on the problems, not deal with them sequentially.

It may well be that the spike in cases is just due to more people cycling, Bendigo is one end of the O'Keefe rail trail, a 49km track to Heathcote. Rail trails have boomed in popularity as more people took up cycling throughout Covid restrictions and looked for a place away from traffic to do it. It just happens that Victoria is the Australian state with the lion's share of rail trails. So it should be possible to compare stats from other Vic health districts with rail trails to see if the effect is widespread or just localised.

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Yorkiescot replied to Philh68 | 2 years ago
4 likes

It's an interesting study and if it leads to less heart problems then it's a welcome balance to the studies that (rightly) identify exercvise as beneficial for heart health.

Hopefully my story will be of interest. About 8 years ago I had an episode of Supra Ventricular Tachycardia (SVT) which was treated in hospital and for a couple of months with beta blockers and blood thinning drugs. I was reasonably active but overweight, drank too much red wine and way too much coffee. It was a wake up call so I got back into biking, cut back on booze and stopped drinking coffee. The heart specialist at the hospital recommended more exercise for heart health and weight loss.

About 3 years ago I was getting in 15-20 hours of hard riding a week so plenty of intensive exercise. So I wonder if Philh68 has a point about riding position, after a short uphill sprint stopped bent down to adjust my shoes and I felt a click in my chest, next thing I knew my HR was over 250bpm and I was pouring with sweat. Luckily I was close to an ambulance station where they confirmed tachycardia and got me to do a Valsalva manouvre (look it up it's useful) which fixed the irregular heartbeat. The hospital identified it as Atrial Fibrulation (AFib). Not sure if body position was a contributing factor but it felt like it was.

In the past 3 years I've had a couple of near misses but have managed to head them off using the Valsalva manouvre, glad the amblance crew showed my how to do it. About 1.5m people in the UK have AFib, could be more unreported so it's fairly common.

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Simon E replied to Yorkiescot | 2 years ago
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Yorkiescot wrote:

About 8 years ago I had an episode of Supra Ventricular Tachycardia (SVT) which was treated in hospital and for a couple of months with beta blockers and blood thinning drugs. I was reasonably active but overweight, drank too much red wine and way too much coffee. It was a wake up call so I got back into biking, cut back on booze and stopped drinking coffee. The heart specialist at the hospital recommended more exercise for heart health and weight loss.

About 3 years ago I was getting in 15-20 hours of hard riding a week so plenty of intensive exercise. So I wonder if Philh68 has a point about riding position, after a short uphill sprint stopped bent down to adjust my shoes and I felt a click in my chest, next thing I knew my HR was over 250bpm and I was pouring with sweat.

So how much of the damage can be attributed to 15-20 hours of riding in the last 3 years compared to your diet for however many years before that? My layman's money would be on your diet & lifestyle before your SVT 8 years ago.

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Yorkiescot replied to Simon E | 2 years ago
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Simon I tend to agree, although the drinking wine/overweight only happened over a couple of years before the first event. Before that I was very fit. My point was more about having an episode when in a certain position on the bike. It's clear that unhealthy lifestyle is not good for hearth health but as we have seen recently even very fit and presumably healthy people can have heart problems so it's not as simple as it seems.

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Dingaling replied to eburtthebike | 2 years ago
1 like

As soon as I started reading the report my thought was that the Austrailians have found something else to beat up cyclists with. I'll stand with you as a cynic despite having read philh68's comment below. Now I want to read about the reference to Jim Fixx having read his books many years ago.

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Quattro95 | 2 years ago
3 likes

I've been a recreational cyclist for over 50 years. Two years ago I was diagnosed with Supra Ventricular Tachycardia (SVT). My BPM can go up to 226 while on a ride. Fortunately I do not have any issues with dizziness, shortness of breath or blackouts. My cardiologist put me on a beta blocker, Metoprolol 25 mg, I only take it on days that I cycle. Things are mostly under control with few episodes over the last several months. I'm very interested in the results of this study. Please let me know how I can follow it.

Thank you,

Quattro95

 

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Batchy replied to Quattro95 | 2 years ago
6 likes

I  spent a dozen or so years fell running then twenty years or so cycling and I ended up with two severe episodes of VT ( 240 bpm )twelve months apart. Both whilst out on bike . Defibrillated in A &E  on both occasions. Eventually diagnosed with ARVC ( Arithmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy) I now have ICD implant and all endurance sustained  excercise is now not advisable. The link between sustained endurance exercise( in particular cycling ) and ARVC has been suspected for sometime now. So in many respects this " new" study is quite old.

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NPlus1Bikelights replied to Quattro95 | 2 years ago
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226? that's both impressive and worrying. I do aim for 240 minus age  HRmax warnings although they have been debunked plenty.

 

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