By Stan Purdum
I recently read Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s article “Late Afternoon Exercise Helps to Control Blood Sugar, Cholesterol and Triglycerides” in last week’s RBR newsletter. I don’t have his medical insight, but I wonder if the research he cited connects with something I discovered several years ago about cycling in the late afternoon.
Most of us realize that our energy peaks and plummets throughout each day. When we talk about being a “morning person” or a “night person,” we are referring to our “circadian rhythm.”
In the fourth century B.C., a man named Androsthenes, who was a scribe to Alexander the Great, traveled with Alexander and his army to India. While on that march, Androsthenes noted that the leaves of certain trees opened during the day and closed at night, and he made notes about that in his records of the military campaign. Of course, he didn’t know why the phenomenon happened, but science has since explained the mechanisms involved. In some plants, the movements are brought about by fluids moving in special joints called pulvini. In other plants, such as tomatoes and cotton, movement is caused by alternating growth of the upper and lower part of the leaves.
Scientists call these changes that repeat in 24-hour cycles “circadian rhythms.” and they speak of plants as having “biological clocks.” Researchers have since concluded that such cycles are not limited to plants. In fact, in 1999, a team of Massachusetts General Hospital scientists discovered that the same genetic machinery that controls the inner movements of plants’ “clocks” may drive the basic rhythms of the human body — the rise and fall of body temperature, blood pressure, hormones and the sleep-wake cycle. One possible benefit of such research may be help for people who have trouble sleeping.
And morning and night are not the only hills and valleys in a 24-hour period. Lots of us have a low-energy time in the hour right after lunch or right before supper. In my case, I have long known that the time around 4 o’clock in the afternoon tends to be a slump for me. After I eat supper, I usually get a second wind, but that hour or so before supper is seldom my most productive.
In fact, at my last job where I worked for someone other than myself, I tried to persuade the owner to let me work 7 to 4 instead of their regular 8 to 5 hours, knowing that would fit my daily rhythm better. He wasn’t willing to do that, but I think it would have been to his advantage, for those early hours are golden for me, and I accomplish very little when chained to a desk between 4 and 5 p.m.
I even notice that if there’s going to be time in the day when I feel gloomy, it’s likely to be around the 4 p.m. hour (especially in winter when daylight is already beginning to fade at 4). As a result, at that time of day, I try not to make decisions any more important than what to have for supper.
From about the sixth century A.D. onward, monks living in monasteries practiced a schedule of prayers called the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. It refers to set times for praying throughout the day, with specific psalms, hymns and prayers to be used at each time. While there are some variations, there are generally seven set prayer times with the earliest, called “Matins,” occurring at 2 a.m. This is followed by “Lauds” at 5 a.m. and others throughout the day. The office for late afternoon, the ninth hour, was called “None” (Latin: Nona, “Ninth”). In the Middle Ages, a writer named Amalarius explained how, like the sun that begins to sink on the horizon at the hour of None, the human spirit tends to lower itself also, making mortals more open to temptation. In the theology of that age, Amalarius said that late afternoon was a time demons particularly selected to tempt humans. The hymns and prayers of None were one way of combating the demons.
I don’t know about that, but I discovered that my circadian slump time is an excellent time of day to ride my bicycle.
I am self-employed and can set my own work schedule. In the first months I was on my own, I often knocked off about 4 p.m., glad for the freedom to take a brief nap or simply to vegetate.
But one day, I decided to ride my bike instead. I have a 10-mile route l near my home, and that day, I went out and rode it. The next day I did the same thing, about the same time, and I continued to do so several days each week.
I found that for me, riding replaced the need for a nap. I returned from the ride refreshed, invigorated and ready to re-enter the continuing activities of the day. And devoting the energy low-point of my day to cycling had a good effect on my cycling endurance, speed, weekly mileage count and even on my weight, and now, according to Mirkin, there may be some longer-term health benefits as well.
Hmmm. Banishing the demons of low endurance, slow speed and too much weight, while gaining health benefits. Maybe those ancient monks were on to something.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.