4

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Thoughts on "Increased Average Longevity Among 'Tour de France' Cyclists"?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created June 21, 2011 at 9:23 PM

Here's the abstract:

It is widely held among the general population and even among health professionals that moderate exercise is a healthy practice but long term high intensity exercise is not. The specific amount of physical activity necessary for good health remains unclear. To date, longevity studies of elite athletes have been relatively sparse and the results are somewhat conflicting. The Tour de France is among the most gruelling sport events in the world, during which highly trained professional cyclists undertake high intensity exercise for a full 3 weeks. Consequently we set out to determine the longevity of the participants in the Tour de France, compared with that of the general population. We studied the longevity of 834 cyclists from France (n=465), Italy (n=196) and Belgium (n=173) who rode the Tour de France between the years 1930 and 1964. Dates of birth and death of the cyclists were obtained on December 31 (st) 2007. We calculated the percentage of survivors for each age and compared them with the values for the pooled general population of France, Italy and Belgium for the appropriate age cohorts. We found a very significant increase in average longevity (17%) of the cyclists when compared with the general population. The age at which 50% of the general population died was 73.5 vs. 81.5 years in Tour de France participants. Our major finding is that repeated very intense exercise prolongs life span in well trained practitioners. Our findings underpin the importance of exercising without the fear that becoming exhausted might be bad for one's health.

Does this make the case for intense endurance exercise after all?

Or perhaps (smart) PED use?

Is anyone aware of similar data on marathoners' life expectancy?

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on October 01, 2011
at 10:08 PM

I think there's a strong genetic element. Maybe I have the Lance Armstrong gene? I found that if I train enough to walk/run/bike for an hour, I can do that activity for at least 5 or 6 hours without additional training. I once did a 2-day 150-mile cycling event and I easily outperformed people who were 10-20 years younger. In a lineup before the race you would have picked them to lap me but on the second day I passed people all day.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on October 01, 2011
at 10:01 PM

I renamed the month formerly known as July as The Tour Month. As I am naturally an endurance athlete with hardly a single fast twitch muscle fiber in my body, those guys are my heroes.

46e82b51e220ed9f2b5fcf57220ff4c9

(0)

on July 15, 2011
at 07:25 PM

you can always find survivor rats in any study...

Bd142c32b4055224d3191461f1f57520

(1098)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:42 AM

I should also say that it is well-noted that Eddy Merckx doped on several occasions...

Bd142c32b4055224d3191461f1f57520

(1098)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:42 AM

Yes, that is true. Will be interesting to see how his son, Taylor, fares in his career.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:06 AM

we can all be freaks of nature if we choose to be.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:03 AM

Davis Pfinney to Parkinson's too.

C2502365891cbcc8af2d1cf1d7b0e9fc

(2437)

on July 14, 2011
at 01:42 AM

These people are absolute freaks of nature. I'm not sure anything valid can be concluded by studying them.

D10ca8d11301c2f4993ac2279ce4b930

(5242)

on July 14, 2011
at 01:40 AM

Most these guys are used to being monitored by doctors 24/7 so they probably get screened regularly and all that jazz.

D10ca8d11301c2f4993ac2279ce4b930

(5242)

on July 14, 2011
at 01:39 AM

Paul, I worry that sitting is being vilified too quickly. I think all that is so far clear is that sitting with bad posture is worse for you than standing with bad posture or perhaps that our sitting posture is worse than our standing posture.

F040035b2008ec80b205481afbd39ad4

(1837)

on June 23, 2011
at 09:08 AM

PFW, yes indeed. One of the great insights I have picked up from the paleo crowd is of survivorship bias. ADV initially raised my awareness of it in his early posts about the dangers of marathons, and latterly Doug McGuff in BBS used it in an example regarding bodyshape and elite swimmers.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on June 22, 2011
at 09:05 PM

Was just going to post this. Looking at the best of the best is a funny way to give advice to the average joe. How about looking at longevity in all cyclists instead of just the genetic elite?

B0454de6d4f4cdd9ca2e59021dc105bf

(606)

on June 22, 2011
at 12:49 PM

"Our major finding is that repeated very intense exercise prolongs life span in well trained practitioners." How did they come to this conclusion? In their analysis, did they attempt to adjust for all the other factors that affect lifespan: diet, caloric intake, spandex. Incidentally, I read about study in which a small group of marathon runners were given a heart scan to measure total heart calcium (plaque) and they were compared with subjects with heart disease. The marathoners had far worse levels of plaque. The number of subjects was very low so the findings were not valid, but still...

Medium avatar

(5136)

on June 21, 2011
at 11:52 PM

heck, they used to smoke cigarettes as a bronchial dilator before big climbs way back in the day... certainly the doping culture of cycling is a long one, and maybe only now starting to change (i am so naive). I can't wait until July though! Thats for sure

Medium avatar

(5136)

on June 21, 2011
at 11:49 PM

I'm with you bretlinford (the average TDF domestique could shred most professional cyclists, as the vast majority of pros don't ever even make it to the Tour!). The interesting question for me about endurance sports is diet. How do endurance athletes on a higher fat diet do in the long term for health versus endurance athletes on a super high carb diet? The food pre 1960's in Europe was much much different, though Tour riders have a long history of notorious practices and drug use that was certainly no secret back in the day.

21f5e3c9986582f8156f9d29d565ed33

on June 21, 2011
at 09:57 PM

I wouldn't even begin to saying that cycling can help you live longer based on TdF cyclists. These guys are, to a LARGE degree, freaks of nature. Greg Lemond's Vo2max was super-human. Even a lowly dowmestique could shred just about anyone in the general population. I'd love to know how modern cycling culture will affect those riders of the current era. The amount and type of doping, supplements, etc. I would guess will have a very negative effect, IMHO.

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:54 PM

After I wrote that I thought it sounded like I was directing at you, Erik, I wasn't. I was more directing it towards the authors of the paper.

D5cde8031564f905260ce9aa7a1f5e2c

(1170)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:50 PM

Oh, definitely. I myself find any extended amount of "cardio" beyond hiking, climbing, light biking, or walking pretty awful, but it's important to accept the existence of counter evidence and even, maybe, consider it.

D5cde8031564f905260ce9aa7a1f5e2c

(1170)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:41 PM

Oh, I understand it just fine, which is why I avoided any unequivocal statements, instead posing a question. You make a good point, though, so an upvote! I'm partial to the PED theory, myself.

C61399790c6531a0af344ab0c40048f1

on June 21, 2011
at 09:37 PM

Good point. Look at Lance Armstrong. He has a unique physiology including an enlarged heart. This is a genetic difference rather than caused by his training and it may explain why he can train at such intensities. May also help explain how he beat advanced cancer but I'm not going there. So his natural physiology may explain both his lifespan (whatever that may prove to be) AND his cycling ability rather than his cycling explaining his lifespan.

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11 Answers

best answer

7
510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:31 PM

Someone doesn't understand correlation does not equal causation. Both of these statements can be true given the study:

"Training and participating in long endurance sports like the Tour make people live longer"

"A person whose genetics is such that they live a long time also has the unique ability to train in a way that allows them to participate in the Tour"

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:54 PM

After I wrote that I thought it sounded like I was directing at you, Erik, I wasn't. I was more directing it towards the authors of the paper.

D5cde8031564f905260ce9aa7a1f5e2c

(1170)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:41 PM

Oh, I understand it just fine, which is why I avoided any unequivocal statements, instead posing a question. You make a good point, though, so an upvote! I'm partial to the PED theory, myself.

C61399790c6531a0af344ab0c40048f1

on June 21, 2011
at 09:37 PM

Good point. Look at Lance Armstrong. He has a unique physiology including an enlarged heart. This is a genetic difference rather than caused by his training and it may explain why he can train at such intensities. May also help explain how he beat advanced cancer but I'm not going there. So his natural physiology may explain both his lifespan (whatever that may prove to be) AND his cycling ability rather than his cycling explaining his lifespan.

B0454de6d4f4cdd9ca2e59021dc105bf

(606)

on June 22, 2011
at 12:49 PM

"Our major finding is that repeated very intense exercise prolongs life span in well trained practitioners." How did they come to this conclusion? In their analysis, did they attempt to adjust for all the other factors that affect lifespan: diet, caloric intake, spandex. Incidentally, I read about study in which a small group of marathon runners were given a heart scan to measure total heart calcium (plaque) and they were compared with subjects with heart disease. The marathoners had far worse levels of plaque. The number of subjects was very low so the findings were not valid, but still...

3
21fd060d0796fdb8a4a990441e08eae7

(24543)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:34 PM

If I'm reading that right, it sounds like the statistic is looking at a survival curve (i.e. a Kaplan-Meier curve), which cannot be directly translated to mean age at death. In other words, more cyclists could be dying at extreme ages (very young and very old).

And, of course, this is just more cohort data that is susceptible to confounding.

But regardless, thanks for posting this. The anti-cardio crowd on here tend to post anecdotes about all endurance athletes dying before reaching old age.

D5cde8031564f905260ce9aa7a1f5e2c

(1170)

on June 21, 2011
at 09:50 PM

Oh, definitely. I myself find any extended amount of "cardio" beyond hiking, climbing, light biking, or walking pretty awful, but it's important to accept the existence of counter evidence and even, maybe, consider it.

96bf58d8c6bd492dc5b8ae46203fe247

(37227)

on October 01, 2011
at 10:08 PM

I think there's a strong genetic element. Maybe I have the Lance Armstrong gene? I found that if I train enough to walk/run/bike for an hour, I can do that activity for at least 5 or 6 hours without additional training. I once did a 2-day 150-mile cycling event and I easily outperformed people who were 10-20 years younger. In a lineup before the race you would have picked them to lap me but on the second day I passed people all day.

1
Bd142c32b4055224d3191461f1f57520

on July 14, 2011
at 02:54 AM

I get what they are trying to sample and I'm personally a huge road cycling fan, so this is of great interest to me. One thing to consider is that the age of the sample they used. If PEDs were used by any of the cyclists pooled, it was before the dawn of EPO and blood doping. Tommy Simpson died from a mixture of alcohol and amphetamines. While I don't have sources readily available, I know it has been said that doping in the TDF has been prevalent since it's inception back in 1903.

As for being a case for endurance cyclists, I think Wozza said it best that these guys are the freaks of nature. Only the top riders in the world are hand picked to ride the Tour, plus there are other factors to consider such as what the rest of their season is like (spring classics? other grand tours?). Each cyclist has a somewhat different training regime, particularly nowadays. They are the epitome of micromanaged to the core, from what they eat, when they sleep and yes, with some teams, if and when they can have sex. There seem to be trends with the super human athletes such as high VO2max, large hearts and a greater ability to suffer.

Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Greg Lemond, et al., seem to be good examples of health. Yet we just lost Laurent Fignon to cancer. I believe that anyone who is willing to endure road cycling in this fashion is a unique individual period.

Bd142c32b4055224d3191461f1f57520

(1098)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:42 AM

I should also say that it is well-noted that Eddy Merckx doped on several occasions...

Bd142c32b4055224d3191461f1f57520

(1098)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:42 AM

Yes, that is true. Will be interesting to see how his son, Taylor, fares in his career.

Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on July 14, 2011
at 03:03 AM

Davis Pfinney to Parkinson's too.

1
9e20abb05f3f6e3cc4bb107f8980aecd

on July 13, 2011
at 06:42 PM

I looked briefly into the literature a few months ago. Marathoners in general live longer and have lower rates of most diseases, but they have higher rates of a few specific diseases.

I think it's a pretty easy comparison versus the general public, which is way too sedentary. Sitting all day is much, much more dangerous than marathoning. Any significant activity will extend lifespan.

D10ca8d11301c2f4993ac2279ce4b930

(5242)

on July 14, 2011
at 01:39 AM

Paul, I worry that sitting is being vilified too quickly. I think all that is so far clear is that sitting with bad posture is worse for you than standing with bad posture or perhaps that our sitting posture is worse than our standing posture.

1
F040035b2008ec80b205481afbd39ad4

on June 22, 2011
at 07:47 AM

Survivorship bias? As with any compeitive sport, the weak get filtered out, you get an elite who go on excel.

Perhaps they should also look at the broader picture. What about all those people who engage in cycling and died in RTA's, of heart attacks etc...

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on June 22, 2011
at 09:05 PM

Was just going to post this. Looking at the best of the best is a funny way to give advice to the average joe. How about looking at longevity in all cyclists instead of just the genetic elite?

F040035b2008ec80b205481afbd39ad4

(1837)

on June 23, 2011
at 09:08 AM

PFW, yes indeed. One of the great insights I have picked up from the paleo crowd is of survivorship bias. ADV initially raised my awareness of it in his early posts about the dangers of marathons, and latterly Doug McGuff in BBS used it in an example regarding bodyshape and elite swimmers.

1
Fe535c4994ac6176f76e1ff6d29eb08a

on June 21, 2011
at 09:37 PM

I think the burden is still to prove, not allude to, but scientifically prove, cause and effect. And I dont think there are enough specifics there to prove that the longevity is based on the extreme endurance based activities.

I know that with elit athletes of the TdF ilk, genetics play heavily into it. At theat level, you either are born with a high lactic acid threshold, Vo2max, max heart rate, etc or youre not. Having those genetics at the outset probably have a lot to do with it as well. Also, we are comparing athletes to the general population, or people that also lead a healthy, yet more moderate life? I think saying athletes live longer is a "well duh" kind of statement. But show me a study that shows endurance athletes vs moderately active folks and that might be something I'd be interested in reading.

Medium avatar

(5136)

on June 21, 2011
at 11:52 PM

heck, they used to smoke cigarettes as a bronchial dilator before big climbs way back in the day... certainly the doping culture of cycling is a long one, and maybe only now starting to change (i am so naive). I can't wait until July though! Thats for sure

Medium avatar

(5136)

on June 21, 2011
at 11:49 PM

I'm with you bretlinford (the average TDF domestique could shred most professional cyclists, as the vast majority of pros don't ever even make it to the Tour!). The interesting question for me about endurance sports is diet. How do endurance athletes on a higher fat diet do in the long term for health versus endurance athletes on a super high carb diet? The food pre 1960's in Europe was much much different, though Tour riders have a long history of notorious practices and drug use that was certainly no secret back in the day.

21f5e3c9986582f8156f9d29d565ed33

on June 21, 2011
at 09:57 PM

I wouldn't even begin to saying that cycling can help you live longer based on TdF cyclists. These guys are, to a LARGE degree, freaks of nature. Greg Lemond's Vo2max was super-human. Even a lowly dowmestique could shred just about anyone in the general population. I'd love to know how modern cycling culture will affect those riders of the current era. The amount and type of doping, supplements, etc. I would guess will have a very negative effect, IMHO.

0
149af6e19a06675614dfbb6838a7d7c0

on July 31, 2011
at 06:26 PM

Stop it. You can't compare the best to the rest. Pros and elites are different. Have you ever heard of a pro porn star dying while filming? No. But many of us normals die during sex. Ex VP Nelson Rockefeller to name one. I myself have felt as if I died many times...but I was always alone.

0
60f61a2243410947a4f8d2692e92cb63

on July 31, 2011
at 05:08 PM

Remember Jim Fixx?

0
Ed71ab1c75c6a9bd217a599db0a3e117

(25472)

on July 14, 2011
at 01:29 AM

Smart PED use for sure. Remember the Davis Pfinney's and Lance Armstrong's Still alive but living with bad chronic diseases. So one has to add that in. that being said I think life can be enhanced with PED's and this abstract helps further that belief.

D10ca8d11301c2f4993ac2279ce4b930

(5242)

on July 14, 2011
at 01:40 AM

Most these guys are used to being monitored by doctors 24/7 so they probably get screened regularly and all that jazz.

0
F82eebe8b33d48913ff38649ba9c261a

on July 13, 2011
at 06:27 PM

The data provided by the authors is not enough to reach the conclusion they assert. There are many correlated factors at play here which may confound the outcome, the most critical is the obvious unmeasured variables.

Also, it is not clear that the authors conducted any multivariate techniques that would help dissociate correlated factors.

Some examples: 1. Endurance athletes rarely smoke, and if they do it is very moderate. Does the lack of smoking explain much of the difference? I would bet that endurance athletes also moderate use of alcohol more closely as well. These are certainly causative factors. 2. Competitive cyclists do not only practice physical training, they also moderate diet closely and actively consume electrolytes to improve heart function. Their diet is unlike that of the general population and may be causative 3. Competitive cyclists likewise are rarely overweight, and in fact, maintain very low body fat and are generally lean (whether genetically or as a result of diet and training). Perhaps it is weight control generally which could be causative 4. Adverse selection is likely at play here as well. As others have mentioned, the genetic makeup that makes a good cyclist (lean body, flexible muscles, durable bone structure and tendons, strong heart, strong lungs, wide vascular pathways, fast metabolism of lactic acid, fast muscle repair etc.) are automatic contributors to long lifespan.

A correct test would be to look at pairs of identical twins (genetically identical) who differ dramatically in their participation in endurance activities, but who are similar in most other respects. This would begin to isolate the impact of physical activity, ceteris paribus.

The authors overreach, but the topic is ripe for further explanation and the finding itself is intriguing, just not definitive.

0
44348571d9bc70c02ac2975cc500f154

(5853)

on June 22, 2011
at 06:18 AM

Eddy Merckx always had a ton of cheese, maybe it was all the K2 he ingested:) Cycling was my favorite sport to follow but i got too tired of doping etc. But atleast there is good testing, unlike in many other high dollar sports.

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