First it was Mr. Big, the character from “Sex in the City,” dying in Carrie Bradshaw’s arms from a heart attack after a 45-minute ride on his Peloton. Then it was Mike “Wags” Wagner, the drug-abusing, sadistic right hand of Axe Capital’s Bobby Axelrod in the Showtime series “Billions,” who too suffers a heart attack after exercising on his elite bike.
Wags, played by esteemed character actor David Costabile, survives. “I’m not going out like Mr. Big,” he declares in his typical cynical style in this season’s opening episode.
The negative publicity caused by the fictional incidents may have some wondering: Is it safe for your heart to exercise intensely?
“The message should be that regular exercise is a wonderful way to stay healthy and well and reduce cardiovascular disease. In fact, I call exercise the ‘fountain of youth,’” said cardiologist Dr. Andrew Freeman, the founding co-chair of the nutrition and lifestyle work group at the American College of Cardiology.
“But I tell people it’s always a wise idea to either visit with their primary care doctor or their cardiologist before they begin on any ambitious exercise program – including Peloton, which I would argue is quite ambitious,” Freeman said.
Did Mr. Big, played by actor Chris Noth, get checked out by his doctor before he put the pedal into spin? If he did, that may have altered the outcome of his heart event – but then you could argue that if Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, had called 911 instead of cuddling him while he died, that too might have changed his destiny.
As for Wags? Anyone who parties that hard is a prime candidate for a heart event, on or off a Peloton bike, said Freeman, who is also director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver.
“You take someone who is using all sorts of substances and lives a very high-stress life, likely doesn’t exercise regularly or eat well, sometimes bad things are gonna happen,” Freeman said.
“Yes, there can be a slight chance of a heart attack or something bad happening during any kind of intense exertion, but I would argue that there’s significant risk in not exercising,” he added.
Singing the praises of exercise
Study after study proves it – exercise boosts your health in ways little else can. “Only a few lifestyle choices have as large an impact on your health as physical activity,” says the nation’s premier health organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even just walking at a moderate pace has been shown to improve cognitive function, help you control your weight, reduce your risk for disease and, of course, strengthen your bones and muscles.
In fact, getting up and moving for a mere 21.43 minutes each day of the week can cut your risk of dying from any cause by one-third, according to the CDC.
Some benefits are immediate. After finishing just one 30-minute physical activity, you’ll have less anxiety, lower blood pressure, and more sensitivity to insulin – and you’ll sleep better that night, the CDC states.
That positive impact rises if you complete the 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise recommended for adults. That includes movements such as brisk walking, dancing, doubles tennis, water aerobics, and yes, cycling.
Within a few months, the CDC says, you’ll see improvement in your blood pressure and heart and lung functions, as well as a lowering of risk for depression, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, and bladder, breast, colon, kidney, lung and stomach cancers. There are additional benefits, too – stress reduction, better sleep and a more robust sex life.
Note: If you are a person with a disability, there are options for you as well. Don’t give up.
Intense exercise isn’t for beginners
Exercise isn’t without risk. As every beginner knows, too much exertion too soon can derail any workout program, especially if muscles aren’t well warmed and stretched in advance. Experts suggest building up slowly, preferably after getting a check up at the doctor.
“Typically if you have not been exercising, we will get a stress test, a supervised graded exercise test to make sure that you don’t have a heart attack while you exercise,” Freeman said.
“Exercise is very safe. It’s highly effective,” he added. “But do it safely. If you have not been exercising and then you’re going to go run marathons or do Peloton or whatever, check with your doctor first.”