As an RBR reader you probably know the major factors that affect how long you will live:
- Smoking shortens the life expectancy of 30-year-old men by 6.6 years and women by 5.5 years.
- Diabetes shortens the life expectancy of 30-year-old men by 6.5 years and women by 5.3 years.
- Heavy stress shortens the life expectancy of 30-year-old men by 2.8 years and women by 2.3 years. I bet you didn’t know this!
The effects on the life expectancy of older people were similar but smaller than in younger age groups.
Life expectancy increased if a person thought the amount of stress is normal, i.e., about the same amount of stress as what other people typically experience. Having more or less stress than that, on the other hand, reduced their life expectancy.
These results are based on a study at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. Researchers calculated the effects of multiple risk factors, including lifestyle-related ones, to the life expectancy of men and women. Women lived a little longer because they had healthier overall lifestyles.
The researchers used data collected from men and women aged 25 to 74 in the Finnish National Study 1987-2007 through questionnaires and measurements. The study followed the mortality rate until the end of 2014.
Northwestern Mutual Lifespan Calculator
The Finnish researchers varied just one factor at a time in the data to see the effect of that factor on aging. You can do something similar with the Northwestern model:
As you enter your answer to each question the model recalculates your estimated life expectancy. By changing how you answer a question it will change your life expectancy. For example:
- If you eat daily the average amount of fruit and veggies (amount undefined) and minimal fast or process foods your life expectancy doesn’t change.
- If you eat fast or processed foods regularly and minimal vegetables your life expectancy goes down by two years.
- If you eat more than five portions of fruit and veggies daily your life expectancy increases by three years.
By experimenting with your answers to different questions you can see the effect on your life expectancy of a change in your lifestyle.
The model also takes into account stress:
- If “I have my ups and downs.” then stress doesn’t change the life expectancy.
- If “Stress often overwhelms me.” then life expectancy goes down by a year.
- If “Stress is a positive influence.” then life expectancy increases by a year.
(The Finnish study found people with the average amount of stress had longer lives than people with more or less stress than average.)
My estimated lifespan is 97 years. Do I believe that? NO. The value of the model is to explore the effects of changes in lifestyle.
The natural stress response
Our natural stress response is sometimes called the fight-or-flight response. Millennia ago our ancestors’ bodies evolved this response to a perceived threat: either mobilize the body’s resources to fight the threat or run away.
When you encounter something you perceive as a threat (even unconsciously) such as a large dog barking at you during your morning walk, your body responds to prepare to fight or run away. Your hypothalamus triggers an alarm system in your body. This system causes your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.
“Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
“Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.”
Malfunction of the natural stress response
Normally the body’s stress-response turns off once you realize the barking dog is on a leash, and your hormone levels return to normal. As your adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
Note: The stress response happens unconsciously and automatically. It’s how your body interprets the barking dog that sets off the fight-or-flight reaction, not the dog itself. This explains why what’s stressful to one person isn’t stressful to another. You also react differently to the same event in different situations. If you’re out Sunday evening for a leisurely walk and you encounter the dog you might not perceive it as a threat. But if it’s Friday morning and you’re already stressed, worn out from the week at work and have an important presentation in a couple of hours the dog might trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response.
When there are constantly many situations you perceive as stressful, then the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system releases cortisol and other hormones, which cause your heart rate and blood pressure to go up, increases the sugar in your bloodstream, etc. This also changes your immune system, suppresses you digestive system and affects your mood.
This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
Life is full of stressors
I’ll use two clients as examples to illustrate this.
In addition to sending me data on a week’s activities I encourage clients to tell me how life is going. If the client is having trouble doing the workouts or performance is dropping off then I ask questions.
Margo is in her early 50s and became an empty nester this year. She and her boyfriend moved across the country to take better jobs. They had to find a new place to live and then pack everything, drive 2,000 miles and unpack. The house still isn’t organized, which bugs her. Margo works different hours different days totaling 50 hours a week. She’s concerned about the health of her family. She misses her familiar training routes. All of these stressors are taking a toll. Her speed on her training rides is a couple of miles an hour slower.
John is in his 40s and has a demanding professional job. He’s married with a six-year-old daughter. His father-in-law lives nearby and needs some help every week. John’s concerned about the health of his family. These factors alone make it challenging for him to fit in his workouts. John’s wife was out of town for two weeks so he had full responsibility for his daughter and father-in-law. By the end of the first week John said he was too stressed by all of this to get on the bike. And they had a new puppy that wasn’t house broken. Normally a puppy would be fun, but with all the other stressors the puppy was just one more problem. John knew he should get on his bike but didn’t want to. Training would be one more stressor.
Prescriptions for clients
Margo and I had planned a series of events through 2021 including one at the end of this year. She was having trouble with the important training rides she thought she should be doing. We agreed that with everything going on we’d drop the event at the end of the year. Instead of training hard, it’s critical she takes care of her stressors in this off-season so she can train effectively next year. Her assignments this fall are to take time to organize the house, go for a couple of mountain bike rides a week without her computer and one evening a week relax and watch a movie with her boyfriend.
Margo’s a roadie, but she found a local MTB event she wants to do. Mountain biking is filled with little stressors, tough pitches that are hard to get up or scary to go down. Before the event I had Margo practice these sections until she was confident, i.e., eliminate the stressors. After the event she wrote me, “I couldn’t believe how much more in control I felt after doing the things you told me to do on the trails. I felt in control and that I could do the same on the road and in life.”
Stress often occurs when something feels out of control. By dealing with some of her life stressors and mastering the stressful parts of the MTB course Margo felt in control.
I explained to John the cumulative effects of all the stressors. The immediate solution was to eliminate one of the stressors. His assignment for the next week was to leave his bike in the garage without feeling guilty. Th second week he was back on his bike but still missing some workouts and feeling bad about that. Rather than giving him a hard time l praised him for what he has done.
Overtraining isn’t just the result of training too much or too hard. The two biggest indicators are:
- Decreases in a rider’s performance.
- Significant changes in mood so the rider doesn’t want to get on the bike.
Margo was slower than normal during workouts. She was on the verge of overtraining, so we cut back on the training and included more fun like riding her mountain bike.
John knew he should go on training rides but he was in a bad mood and didn’t want to. John was also on the verge of overtraining. The solutions were for him to stop training for a week until his wife returned to share the load and for me to redesign the workouts to fit better with his lifestyle.
Learning to react to stress in a healthy way
“You are one ride away from a good mood.” — Sarah Bentley, British cyclist
Stressful events are facts of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you. You can learn to identify what your stressors are, their cumulative effects on you and your training. You can learn how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations.
The Mayo clinic suggests these stress management strategies:
- Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as trying yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate.
- Taking time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music.
- Fostering healthy friendships.
- Having a sense of humor.
- Volunteering in your community.
- Seeking professional counseling when needed.
Going for a fun ride, not training, can also be restorative.
“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.” — Arthur Conan Doyle
I’ve written a five-part column called On the Rivet about the mental side of cycling including relaxation. On the Rivet means maximum effort. Often when going flat out a rider slides forward. The term was coined when everyone rode leather saddles and when a rider slid forward he was literally sitting on the rivet.
- On the Rivet Part I: Learning to Focus
- On the Rivet II: The Importance of Progressive Relaxation
- On the Rivet III: Keep Falling! Keep Getting Up!
- On the Rivet IV: Improving Performance Through Positive Thinking
- On the Rivet V: Why You Need a Training Plan or Don’t You?
My eBook Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling is a handbook, a series of exercises to learn and manage mental techniques. l start with lessons on how to relax and focus, i.e. set aside your stressors so you can ride better. I include lessons on how to change a negative mood and how to manage anxiety. Many of my clients’ workouts include 10-15 minutes of mental training four or five days a week. Each week they report on their mental workouts as well as their cycling workouts. The off-season when you’re riding less is a good time to learn the mental techniques you can use next year to ride better.
The 17-page handbook Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling is just $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.