Dressing up in skin-tight Lycra and pounding the highways on a road bike may not sound like the way to age gracefully but scientists have found that older cyclists show fewer signs of ageing compared with non-cyclists.
Cycling - and heavy exercise in general - may be exhausting but it also appears to be the route to Shangri-La or something approximating the fountain of youth, according to one interpretation of the findings.
Scientists who analysed the physiological functions of more than 120 regular cyclists aged between 55 and 79 failed to find any of the obvious signs of ageing that they would normally observe among people of the same age.
The volunteers - 84 men and 41 women - had to be able to cycle 100 km in six and half hours for men and 60km in less than 5.5 hours for women. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure and other health conditions were automatically excluded.
The super-fit group of elder cyclists were monitored in a laboratory for two days with a battery of tests to measure their cardiovascular, respiratory, neuromuscular, metabolic, endocrine and cognitive functions - in addition to bone strength and general health and well-being.
The result was that the cyclists as a group showed few of the typical signs of ageing and that it was not possible to made generalisations about the aging process, according to Steve Harridge of King's College London, the senior author of the study published in the Journal of Physiology.
"In general, we didn't find the ageing we would expect to see in this age profile. We found some factors were correlated with ageing, but not strongly correlated, and some that were not correlated at all," Dr Harridge said.
"We had assumed that there is a linear straight line decline in physiology with ageing but that is very unlikely to be the case. We're not saying we're reversing ageing but that cycling seems to optimise the ageing process," he said.
"Because most of the population is largely sedentary, the tendency is to assume that inactivity is the inevitable condition for humans. However, given that our genetic inheritance stems from a period when high levels of physical activity were the likely norm, being physically active should be considered to play an essential role in maintaining health and well-being throughout life," he added.
The scientists chose extremely active and fit elder cyclists because of concerns that sedentary lifestyles are masking the normal ageing process, which makes it difficult to study the physical changes resulting directly from growing old, he explained.
A typical test for ageing, for instance, is to see how fast someone can get up from a chair, walk three metres, turn and walk back and sit down. Taking more than 15 seconds indicates ageing, but all the volunteers in the study, even the eldest, were able to complete the test in far less time.
"An essential part of our study was deciding which volunteers should be selected to explore the effects of ageing," said Ross Pollock of King's College, a member of the research team.
"The main problem facing health research is that in modern societies the majority of the population is inactive. A sedentary lifestyle causes physiological problems at any age," he said.
"Hence the confusion as to how much the decline in bodily functions is due to the natural ageing process and how much is due to the combined effects of ageing and in activity," he added.
They are among the most derided social groupings of the age, complete with their own less than flattering acronym: Mamils.
Middle-aged men in Lycra are everywhere, it seems, showing off their fancy racing bikes, revelling in the late flowering of their physical prowess, living out their Tour de France dreams, while possibly unaware of the discrepancy between what they see in themselves - youthfulness, heroism and more than a touch of cool - and what others see when Mamils whizz past - sad, faintly ridiculous gadget obsessives making a futile attempt to stop the march of time.
Mamils, however, may have the last laugh. According to a study by King's College, London, fit amateur cyclists aged between 55 and 79 are physically and biologically much younger than most people the same age.
Cycling, it turns out, benefits the mind and body to a degree that those who keep turning the pedals are also turning back the years.
At a time when physical activity among the young is in alarming decline, an obesity crisis is gripping the Western world, and demands on the NHS are at unsustainable levels, those such as Mamils who are taking responsibility for their own fitness are to be applauded.
They are, according to the King's report, reducing the risks associated with numerous diseases, and that can only have wider societal benefits.
The Mamil phenomenon may not last. Fashions come and go, and perhaps golf - whose decline as a participation sport seems to be the corollary of the cycling uptake - will reassert itself. But cycling's clearly addictive quality should not be underestimated, and it's one addiction - barring accidents - that our health service should welcome.
- The Independent