While the health benefits of endurance training has been hotly debated, new research indicates that French cyclists who competed in the Tour de France live about six years longer than the average Frenchman. Despite its narrow focus, medical experts say the study is important because it validates the health benefits of extensive exercise.
“We should encourage people to exert themselves,” lead researcher Dr. Xavier Jouven told the European Society of Cardiology congress on Sept. 3 (via Reuters). “If there was a real danger in doing high-level exercise, then we should have observed it in this study.”
The study examined the mortality rates of 786 French racers in the Tour de France from 1947 to 2012 and found that their mortality rates were 41 percent lower than the average French male.
What's more, the Tour de France cyclists also experienced lower rates of death from heart attacks, strokes and even cancer, compared to the general French male population.
The report appears to contradict recent research suggesting that chronic cardio exercise could spur heart damage and lead to other health issues. The Tour de France is a 2,200-mile bike race spanning 23 days. Researchers say the grueling endurance competition is comparable to running a marathon a day for three weeks straight.
Dr. Jouven, of the Georges Pompidou Hospital in Paris, admits he too was surprised by the findings. “We expected to observe exactly the opposite,” he said.
While critics will question whether comparing the longevity of world-class cyclists to the average Frenchman (most of whom smoke and may not exercise regularly) is scientifically meaningful, medical experts say the study underscores the positive impact that exercise has on longevity.
“The message is clear: Even the level of intensity involved in the Tour de France is not going to shorten your life,” said Dr. Albert Bove of Temple University Medical Center.