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How peaking physically in middle age can help extend your life

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“Being older and having more life experience helps you to be set up mentally for the challenge,” says Beudel. That life experience includes parenting and managing a career with a “precarious” income.

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“There are really strong correlations with writing and tenacity and the big physical endurance events and tenacity,” she says from her home in Canberra.

“To endure mental suffering is harder than physical suffering. If you can get through the mental side of it, the physical side of it is pretty manageable.”

As much as age can affect the psychological approach to cycling, she has discovered that cycling can also affect the aging process, which is notable given the participation rate among adults aged over 50 is rising significantly.

Research suggests that increased blood flow to the brain, from exercise, improves cognitive function and enhances brain cell regeneration, slowing the aging process. Cycling outdoors, and engaging with nature, improves psychological well-being, which not only improves mood but has knock-on effects to cognition too.

Cycling in older age can also improve balance, proprioception and fear of falling.

It’s the therapeutic effects of cycling and its ability to transport the rider, not just physically but psychologically, that have captured Beudel’s interest.

Her father suffered PTSD from his experiences in the second world war.

“So I had long-standing interest in the long-term impacts of trauma,” says Beudel who, through her research for the book, came across bike therapy programs for returned soldiers with PTSD.

“One of the many symptoms of PTSD is strong feelings of powerlessness,” she says. Research suggests cycling can provide a sense of self-determination and self-empowerment. “So just that simple act of deciding that you’re going to get on your bike and go out and do it, there’s a kind of self-determination in it.”

Hyperarousal, where a person experiences a heightened stress response, is another key symptom of PTSD.

Exercise, by mimicking stress via an accelerated heartbeat and breathing rate, may help people with PTSD to desensitise to hyperarousal cues.

Intense forms of exercise, like cycling, can also pull us out of negative thought patterns and plant us back in the present moment.

“There is something very kind of immersive,” Beudel says. “There’s a very meditative quality to cycling.”

Beudel had been, she says, “respectful of the preparation” required for a big challenge as big as Peaks. Longer training rides, where she packed dried bananas, crackers with peanut butter, and caffeinated lozenges, would take her up to eight hours.

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As her skill level grew, so too did her belief in her own abilities. This in itself has allowed her to go deeper into the experience.

Literature shows that when high skill level and high challenge level intersect, elusive flow states happen. Also described as “peak experiences” or transcendence, they are defined by smooth and accurate performance with an acute absorption in the task.

Though the event was in ways harder than she expected, particularly with “the very hardest, steepest climb” right near the end when she was already depleted, she focused on each pedal stroke and, in doing so, entered a flow state.

“I was a hundred per cent focused. It was like the only way I’m going to do it is just to be completely focused on this moment and nothing else.”

Twelve hours after she began, she crossed the finish line, exhausted and elated and confident that, at any age, if we put the hours in and do the preparation big goals are entirely achievable.

“It is a kind of hopefulness that I’ve taken away from it,” she says, saying she’s on the fence about doing the Peaks Challenge again, but is looking for her next challenge.

“Whether it’s another event or whether it’s refining some aspect of my technique or whether it’s just rediscovering the simpler kind of pleasure of the activity, it’s been a very affirmative undertaking.

“There’s a sense that… you can set yourself this challenge and nothing can get in your way from completing that.”

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