MAMILs: Step away from the bicycle - it could be harming you!
That’s the message from the Daily Mail, anyway, who published a story this week stating that although men aged between 35 and 44 were buying bikes in their droves, the high intensity exercise they were embarking on could have a serious impact on their cardiovascular health.
Of course, the Daily Mail is notorious for its health scare stories; one only has to glance at the Daily Mail’s A-Z of Things That Give You Cancer to be aware of that, and in its inimitable style has already published a number of contradictory articles including ‘Exercise 'beats drugs for heart and stroke patients': Study finds prescribing physical activity could revolutionise patients' health’, ‘Why having a heart attack while you're doing exercise is less likely to kill than if you're a couch potato’, ‘Excess exercise 'hurts the heart' and cause dangerous long-term harm, say scientists’ and ‘A stroll can cut risk of heart disease by half’.
But despite the paper’s inability to decide whether exercise is good for your heart or not, are there any lessons to be taken from the impressive array of experts consulted for their piece?
Eddie Chaloner, a consultant vascular surgeon at Lewisham Hospital, South-East London told the paper that the risk of stroke in unconditioned, new athletes, is high - something that the BBC presenter Andrew Marr discovered to his cost when he took up high-intensity rowing in middle age.
“I see a lot of middle-aged men in my clinic who have taken up excessive exercise because they have hit 40,' said Mr Chaloner. 'They have panicked because they have put on weight or got high blood pressure and may have been referred to me for further investigations.
“But people don't realise that, aside from the risk of a heart attack, taking up exercise this way can actually lead to heart problems. Excessive exercise in middle-aged men can trigger atrial fibrillation - a heart condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate.
“One in five strokes is caused by this - and the kind of stroke caused by atrial fibrillation is more likely to be fatal.”
Cycling could be particularly risky, apparently. Professor Tony Kochhar, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at South London Healthcare NHS Trust told the paper.
“Cycling, for example, can be a particular problem for the hips. The body is no longer designed to deliver the way it could in our youth, so we have to adapt.”
But there’s hope for those who love to get out on their bike.
Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine and director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College, London, told the paper: “Exercise can help reduce the risk of so many health conditions from obesity and depression to diabetes and bowel cancer - which is the second most likely disease after heart disease to kill middle-aged men.”
Studies also found improvements in men’s sex lives and metal agility when they took part in exercise, leading the controversial newspaper to suggest some fairly sensible routes into exercise - for those who feel it’s worth the risk.
It's advisable to find out if you are already at an increased risk of heart disease through diabetes or high blood pressure - both of which can be assessed through blood tests organised by your GP.
Tell your doctor of any family history of heart disease and stroke. It's then important to start by spending several weeks simply becoming more active during the day, perhaps by using the stairs or walking to the shops, says John Dearing, a sports injury surgeon at Carrick Glen Hospital in Ayr.
After that, build up your fitness level slowly, perhaps walking 20 to 40 minutes, three times a week.
'You should walk, cycle or whatever you choose to do with enough exertion to become mildly breathless, but you should still be able to talk in sentences,' adds Professor Montgomery.
It's not just your heart you need to protect. Warming up is very important to avoid muscle strain - this should take up about 10 per cent of the time of your session, says John Miles, the medical head at Cardiff Blues rugby club.
This could include basic movements such as lunges, squats and stretches for the lower limb muscles.
Once you feel as if fitness has improved, and you want to start speeding up then do this gradually.
Dr Dearing adds: 'If you take up, say, jogging, start by doing ten to 15 minutes. If you manage that without a problem, then do 20 minutes the following day.'
Establish distance before you think about speed.
Once you can jog a mile-and-a-half, you can vary your run with ten seconds of sprinting, followed by slowing down for a minute and then repeating three times - a system known as Fartlek training (from the Swedish for 'speed play', it means varying exercise with periods of intensity).
It's important to keep note of any symptoms that could suggest a strain on your cardiovascular system.
Dr Thomas warns: 'If you have any chest pain or discomfort when exercising, you must get it checked out.
'Heart pain occurs as a crushing pain across the chest, not just on the left side as people mistakenly think. Nausea and breathlessness when exercising can also be a sign of heart issues.'
Unfortunately, there is no cast-iron guarantee that your heart will be fine. But as Dr Dearing points out: 'Increasing physical activity has huge benefits - and some exercise is always better than none.
'But take a sensible approach, otherwise you run the risk of doing more harm than good.'
After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.