Cycling will give you heart disease

Cycling as a cause of heart diseaseMarch 1895, and in the pages of The Lancet, Dr George Herschell is worried.  Very worried.

Cycling, rationally pursued, is one of the most health-giving forms of amusement; but when indulged in to excess, or under improper conditions, one of the most pernicious. I have been led to choose this subject for my paper from the fact that my position on the Staff of a Special Hospital devoted to the treatment of Diseases of the Heart has given me unusual opportunities of studying the subject. Moreover it is of great interest to me, as I am myself a practical cyclist. I am sorry to say that during the last few years a considerable number of cases of heart disease, undoubtedly caused by cycling, have come under my observation.

But cycling is physical exercise, and the Victorians were all in favour of that, weren’t they?  So what’s the problem?

The chief danger of cycling, or rather the reason why it is more injurious than some other forms of exercise, is the probability when riding alone of being led into an injurious excess of exertion, and the almost certainty of the same thing happening when riding in company, especially with a club.

‘Injurious excess of exertion’ is a good phrase, and one which I intend to use next time I am feeling too lazy to go outdoors for some exercise.

Two racing cyclists
Gambling with their lives

In the first place we will take the solitary rider. He is extremely likely to take much more exercise than he is aware of before he recognises the fact that he has done so. He starts off in the morning for a ride, fresh and vigorous, having previously mapped out his course. It not unfrequently happens that when the time arrives for his midday meal some unforeseen delay may have caused him to have some few miles yet to go. He has perhaps overrated his capacity; or the condition of the roads render travelling at the rate upon which he had based his calculations impossible. But he is hungry, and so he redoubles his efforts to reach the place. When he arrives there he is utterly fagged out and has lost his appetite.  Again — the roads are good, the wind is at one’s back, and the rider is fresh. The machine runs easily. Having ridden out for half a day or so the rider starts to return.  But everything is now reversed. The rider is tired, and the wind is against him. Moreover he has been led by the easiness of the outward journey to go much further than he had  intended; so that by time he reaches home he is in the vernacular of the cyclist ‘baked’.

A word which has a rather different meaning in today’s vernacular – although given recent scandals relating to widespread drug-taking among professional cyclists, perhaps it’s not so far off the mark.

The commonest way however in which the cyclist does himself harm is in climbing hills. He is nearing the top of the hill, the heart is dilated with the strain put upon it by the increased arterial tension. If the rider were now to stop to recover himself no harm would be done. But in too many cases he does not do so. Only a few more revolutions of the wheel will be required to carry him to the top. So he redoubles his exertions, and puts further strain upon a heart already taxed to the utmost limit of its capacity. But in those few moments, damage has been done to the heart from which it perhaps cannot recover.


Another very wicked thing is what is known as a “Hill-climbing contest”. If people were to deliberately set themselves to devise a method of riding which should be as injurious as possible they could not hit upon a better one. Here, everything that I have said in respect to riding up hills, applies with double force. Hills of the steepest gradient are deliberately selected, and the competitors ride up them against time. They try and break existing records for that particular hill. Nothing more suicidal, or more certain to produce heart disease can possibly be imagined.

What on earth would he have made of the Tour de France, with its regular ascents of alpine peaks?  And should we warn Chris Froome?

Let us now return to preventive measures, and see what we can do to prevent this fascinating sport from injuring us. I would lay stress upon the following points: —

  1. The use of a low gear.
  2. The upright position in riding. The stooping posture so affected by the modern cyclist, by contracting the chest, prevents the proper expansion of the lungs, and by interfering with the aeration of the blood, causes the condition of breathlessness to come on quicker.
  3. Adequate food when riding, and the avoidance of muscle poisons such as beef-tea.
  4. The cyclist must avoid the advertised preparations of kola and coca. These by numbing the sense of weariness, enable injuriously excessive work to be done, almost without the knowledge of the rider.
  5. On no account should the cyclist continue riding after he has commenced to feel short of breath, or when there is the slightest sensation of uneasiness in the chest.

Noted. Club cyclists may need to make a few tweaks to their training regimes.  Maybe a return to the cycling habits of 1875 (below) – which looks far less strenuous.  No doubt Dr Herschel would approve.

cyclist in top hat
Top hat optional

One thought on “Cycling will give you heart disease”

  1. Alas, as a competitive cyclist for 20 years I developed a. Fib. Caused by dilation of the left ventral aorta. Fortunately, ablation (X3) resolved the problem, but I am no longer competitive. In my practice as an anesthetist, I begin to notice many young fit “endurance athletes” presenting with a. Fib.
    Reciently, research has verified this link. Like everything in life “Moderation in all” . Although a bit over th top, it’s good to know Herschell was onto it over 100 years ago.

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