By John Yoder
One of my favorite cycling goals is to ride as many miles as I am old on my birthday. So, for example, when I turned 65, I did a 65-mile ride. I’ve done this birthday ride many times, sometimes alone, often with friends, and I find that the day is always an affirmation of life: I’m still here and mobile!
I admit that I’m not a slave about riding on my birthday date. If the weather is cold and rainy, as it can be in late October, I’ll pick a more pleasant day close to my birthday for this ride. After all, it’s a goal, not a mandate, and the idea is to enjoy the day, not just endure it.
But sometimes life throws you a curve, and your goals need major modification. That was the case for me on my 66th birthday, when, instead of riding 66 miles, my goal became walking 66 steps. The reason for this much more limited goal was simple: I had quadruple heart-bypass surgery the day before my birthday.
I Needed Another Plan
In those circumstances, I needed another plan. I told the nurses in the Elkhart General Hospital Critical Care Unit about my birthday-ride tradition, and that I wanted to adapt that tradition to the hospital setting, substituting steps for miles, and they were happy to help me achieve it.
So, trailed by a tower full of IVs, with my wife and daughter counting the steps, I managed to walk from my bed, down the hospital corridor, turn around and walk back to the bed. I felt as proud of my accomplishment as if I’d ridden 66 miles on my bike in a blinding snowstorm.
Still, having heart disease was disturbing. Since middle age, I had exercised regularly, eaten a low-fat diet, didn’t smoke, didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and was not overweight, yet it didn’t seem to matter: I had a heart with clogged arteries.
To compound the irony, I had been talking about the benefits of exercise for 20 years while promoting the creation of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project in our community. I’ve argued that this greenway would promote better health in the community by giving people an off-road opportunity to exercise by biking, jogging and walking.
Yet, although I exercised faithfully, wasn’t I proof that exercise doesn’t produce a healthy heart? Didn’t my bad heart undercut one of the prime rationales for building the trail?
Exercise Actually Saved Me
My doctor friends put my situation into perspective.
First, it was through exercise that I discovered I had a heart problem. My chest pains started when I was biking and went away when I stopped – classic symptoms ofangina or blocked arteries to the heart. Had I not been exercising, I could have been one of the 50 percent of people who have a heart attack and die without showing any symptoms of a heart problem. Couch potatoes don’t have those warning signs; bikers do.
Second, the exercise I had done greatly speeded my recovery. My legs, with 60,000 cycling miles in them in over the previous 20 years, quickly had me walking. Five days after surgery, I walked 3,600 pedometer-certified steps, or about a mile and a half, then two and a half miles on the eighth day, then four miles on day13 – all of which made recovery faster, because walking is the one of best things a heart patient can do. It improves blood circulation to the entire body, making your lungs, heart and other organs work better. It improves your body’s ability to use oxygen, and it helps reduce blood pressure.
All these benefits aid recovery from the trauma the body experiences when the surgeons crack open your sternum and put you on a heart bypass machine so they can pull a vein out of your leg and stitch it like a jumper cable between an artery and your heart.
Third, the truth is that heredity trumps exercise. Both of my parents died of heart-related causes, and that is probably the most important factor that led to my heart disease. So although I exercised regularly, ate a low-fat diet, didn’t smoke, didn’t have high blood pressure or particularly high cholesterol, and was not overweight, I developed clogged arteries because I inherited that tendency.
Back to My Tradition, And Going Strong
The bottom line is that even moderate exercise improves your health. Statistics show that “30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most or all days of the week is all it takes to help your heart” (Six Steps to a healthy heart, American Heart Association booklet).
Having an off-road place to walk, jog or bike – like the trail project I’ve worked on for over 25 years – makes it more likely that that exercise will happen.
Since that hospital walk, I’ve been faithful in taking the medication my cardiologist prescribes, and have taken eight more yearly birthday rides without incident. And I continue to set goals, with room for the flexibility needed to accommodate the unexpected.
John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).